DEREK LARSON, SCRIPTURE REFLECTION
ST. GEORGE’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH GRIFFIN, GA
ORDINARY TIME, PROPER 15, 2017
AUGUST 20, 2017
Today is my son’s 2nd birthday! He’s two! I could not be more proud of the little boy he’s becoming. His curiosity is inspiring, his love for friends and family is touching, and his ever expanding vocabulary is impressive to watch. And while he is most certainly his own person, he is also most certainly his parent’s child.
You see, we—my wife, son, and I—are Peace People. We’re the kind of people always trying to curb the tension and bring people together. We hate conflict and controversy. We hate violence and confrontation. Instead, our goal, is—to the best of our ability—to always keep the peace. “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity! It is like fine oil upon the head, that runs down upon the beard,” as we heard this morning from our Psalm. The statement could be a mantra for me—and not just because of the beard.
As far as I can tell, we’ve always been Peace People. I can remember even in middle school being approached by my school’s administration asking if I would become a peer mediator in a student conflict resolution program. Not only was peace important to me, people seemed to just get that from being around me. In fact, even this week I was sitting in Starbucks preparing for what I might say to you today, books spread out in front of me, computer at hand, and the barista behind the counter walked up to me saying, “I like the way you’re set up here. You have such a sense of calm about you. We need that.” I was just sitting there! And I get this kind of thing in public all the time! And so does my wife! We just seem to have a natural disposition to being Peace People.
So when we found out that we were going to have a baby, of course we decided that we would approach pregnancy and birth in the most peaceful way possible. Instead of focusing on the pain and discomfort of pregnancy and child birth we would focus on the beauty of new life. Instead of listening to the horror stories of difficult labors, we decided we would celebrate birth (which incidentally was the name of the birthing center we went to for prenatal care and labor). And right from the start, our son, Bear, seemed to be completely in sync with that sentiment. LauraAnn was blessed with a mostly comfortable pregnancy with no sickness or complications. Our house was full of small notes of empowering messages and encouraging thoughts stuck up on the bathroom mirror, or above the front door. It was important to us that our son would grow in an environment of peace.
Finally the day when LauraAnn entered labor came. We went to the birthing center and found a nice cozy bedroom in the back of the house and turned on the cd player with a playlist we had prepared of our favorite songs. LauraAnn was absolutely amazing. Throughout the day she felt very little pain and continually kept a positive attitude. Our months of intentionality and planning had brought us to this beautiful moment of new life. We were at peace.
And yet, things didn’t go as planned. As the hours passed with no progress and no baby, things became more stressful and we began to lose some of our peace. And finally after 30 hours of continual labor, we were taken to the hospital in an ambulance where my wife would have a C section due to what they call, “failure to progress.” What an awful thing to say to a mother in labor, by the way, “You have failed to progress.”
One of the lessons I learned that night, pacing the hallways, waiting to be called back to the operating room, is that much of the “peace” which we had desired depended so much upon things going the way we had planned. And now that they had gone a different way—a perfectly acceptable and common way, I might add—we struggled to bring the peace with us. Peace, for us, was the absence of conflict and the presence of control, and now we had neither.
So I stood next to my wife clinging to her hand, as nurses and doctors rushed around us casually talking like it was simply another day at work for them while I felt like I had the weight of the world on top of me.
And then my son was born. There’s this awkward moment for a father at the birth of his child when his sole responsibility of taking care of one person suddenly becomes two. I felt the pull to rush towards my son lying in a crib across the room while at the same time feeling that to do so would be an abandonment of my wife as she lay on the operating table. I was stretched in both directions. But at the encouragement of my wife and the nurses, I pulled myself in the direction of Bear, our son. And as I peered down into the crib I saw the bright eyes of a quiet baby staring right back at me, our eyes locked with one another. Bear was a Peace Person, and in that gaze he brought the peace back into me. Even when the doctors had minor concerns about his health and took him away to spend his first night in the NICU, I felt real peace.
Peace has nothing to do with the absence of conflict and everything to do with a loving trust and a pure resolve that the world will be made right.
Even so, its easy to confuse the two. So often I find myself, under the guise of being peaceful, merely running from conflict. I’m afraid of controversy. Which is why I found myself shifting in my seat as I read today’s gospel passage.
In it, we find Jesus, standing among the people, preaching and teaching, much like I am today. He is discussing an interpretation of the law which describes in detail all of the things that must be done in order for a meal to be eaten lawfully, including the washing of hands before eating. Jesus explains that ultimately its not how you eat that matters, but how you speak and live. You can wash your hands all you want, but if you’re words are full of hate, you’re missing the point.
Upon finishing and going on his way, his disciples catch up to him saying, “Jesus! Don’t you know that you offended the pharisees back there?” Oh! I hate that. You try to give a good message and speak from the heart and someone takes it the wrong way. I would have immedietly rushed back to make things right. I would have apologized and tried to figure out what I did to offend them so that I would never do it again. But Jesus, another Peace Person—the Prince of Peace, in fact—doesn’t seem to be phased. In fact, he calls them out even more, saying they’re religiously blind. For being a Peace Person, Jesus sure seems to walk into controversy. For Jesus, peace isn’t running away from conflict. Peace is proactively standing up for what’s right, even in the midst of violence and conflict.
This week I’ve been burdened by the events that took place in Charlottesville, VA last weekend. I’ve been burdened by the scenes of deep hatred shown in the symbols of flags, swastikas, and old Nazi chants. I’ve been burdened about how to respond to such violence and enmity. My discomfort with conflict makes me want to leave it alone for someone else to deal with. But peace is not the absence of conflict, and it is especially not the ignoring of conflict, and I know that if I truly want to proclaim the gospel message of peace which Christ proclaims, I cannot run from or ignore violence and injustice in our world, but must address it head on in a loving and unquestioning firmness, just as Jesus did with the pharisees. But how? How do you do that?
As a school chaplain, these questions burden me all the more. How do I talk to teenagers and children about what’s going on in the world? We may think and hope that kids live oblivious to the foolish feuds of adults that arise from absurd ideologies of racism and prejudice, but kids live in this world too, and it only takes the click of a button. Kids aren’t as oblivious as we’d sometimes like them to be.
And so I worry about them. I worry about what they will think when they see the marching of white supremacists and the saluting of neo-Nazis. I have black and brown students. I have Jewish students. I have students whose families have immigrated from places around the world. And while I work hard everyday to make sure that they know how deeply they are loved, a click of the button will give them another message. Earlier this week I was training middle school students how to acolyte for our morning chapel services. As I held the alb and discussed the symbolic and historical meanings of the garment and how to wear it a 6th grader raised their hand and asked me, “why do acolytes dress like the Ku Klux Klan?” My heart is burdened.
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I’ve spent all week reading and listening to the responses of many others, including a host of clergy who were actually there (Read their story here: https://thinkprogress.org/clergy-in-charlottesville-e95752415c3e/), hoping to find some sense of direction. I do know, we are called to be peacemakers. We are called to be representatives of love, peace, and righteousness. We are called to stand up for what is right, and to advocate for those in need. We are called to be Peace People. And peace is not the absence or ignoring of conflict. Peace is not the presence of control. Peace is not the status-quo.
Often in life, the things we plan and hope for will be blown out of the water. Often in life, we will find ourselves out of our element, in places of discomfort and conflict, whether that be in the worry of a parent in the hallways of a hospital or the confronting of racism in the downtown streets of Charlottesville. In times such as these, we need to make sure that the peace which we as Christians proclaim reaches beyond the realms of mere personal comfort and control and stretches into the chaos and confusion of the world. Peace is active, not passive. It requires work, and we must be willing to engage in that work. It requires us to be humble, to listen to the real needs and experiences of others. It requires us to never give up.
In the final section of our gospel reading we encounter a Canaanite woman who, like many others, had lost her peace. She found Jesus walking near her home and having heard of his miraculous works among the people of Israel, begged him to heal her sick daughter, but at first Jesus refused. We have to ask ourselves why Jesus was so uncharacteristically cold to this woman. Why would he reject her by means of her nationality? If Jesus was truly sent to Israel only, what in the world was he doing in her part of the country to begin with? I think Jesus wanted to demonstrate what a person looked like in the midst of chaos and confusion, purely resolved to be an agent of healing and peace. Even in the face of pain, rejection, and confusion, the woman continued to stand in the gap for the one that needed her, not accepting no for an answer. She could have very easily succumbed to the circumstances of her situation, but instead the peace she sought extended beyond her current life situation to an unquestioning belief that the world would be set right and she would not give up. We ought to be like that woman. We ought to be Peace People even when peace seems impossible. We’ll have to sit down and talk about the specifics (Presiding Bishop Michael Curry can get us started: https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/message-presiding-bishop-michael-curry-where-do-we-go-here-chaos-or-community), but we ought to never give up on healing and peace.
I think the first time I shared a reflection on the scripture with you last year I closed with a prayer attributed to St. Francis. I think it would be especially appropriate to close again with this prayer. I encourage you to reflect deeply on the words, and how they might apply in the context of what is happening in our world today.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.