Saturday, November 12, 2016

Peace Be With You: sermon for November 13, 2016

Preached on Sunday, November 13th at All Saints Episcopal Church, Glen Rock, NJ. An audio version of this sermon can (soon) be found here

Last Sunday we celebrated a baptism, a particularly auspicious ritual to occur on All Saints’ Day, our parish feast day. And it gave us all an opportunity to renew our baptismal covenant. When baptism occurs in the Sunday service, a few of the elements of the service change to accommodate and highlight the baptism. For instance, we begin the service with a special opening acclamation where we talk about baptism in particular. The priest says, “There is One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” 

That “One Baptism” part is significant. During the early days of the church, persecutions of Christians would sporadically take place. Generally speaking, the Christians would be blamed for something – bad weather, loss of a battle; or accused of savage practices, cannibalism for one. Or they would be seen as a threat to civil society since they refused to sacrifice to the gods, particularly the gods who were or had been emperors. This made them seem unpatriotic, and unRoman, a foreigner influence set upon undermining the great Pax Romana, the (somewhat brutally enforced) ‘peace’ of the Roman empire. 

When these persecutions took place, often Christians would be called before the
authorities and made to sacrifice to what they considered to be idols, or they would be forced to recant their faith. As you can imagine, some would, but others refused to do so, and they were punished. Punishment could be the loss of a public office, the confiscation of property, and even death. Their deaths were particularly notable, as they usually took place in the forum, as public spectacles, meant to instill fear and enforce conformity among the citizenry. But it often backfired. The Christians very often went to their deaths joyfully, willingly sacrificing themselves as had their Lord. The persecution of Christians became the early church’s most successful propaganda weapon. An early church leader named Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” 

Often, the persecutions would blow over rather quickly. And everything would return to normal. And some of those not of the mettle of martyrs, who did, in fact, recant and deny their faith and sacrifice to idols, would return to their church communities, and apply to be readmitted. A question arose, should these Christians be re-baptized? Had what they had done, denying their faith and their God, been serious enough so as to require them to start all over again, from the very beginning of their Christian life, their baptism? It was determined that, no, there was no need, because the problem was not the baptism, it was our all too human propensity to fall short of the marks we set for ourselves, the marks that God sets for us. So, ever after and to this day, we declare that there is, indeed, One Lord, One Faith, and One Baptism.

But you can imagine what Sunday morning must have been like after the persecutions. In would come these people who had succumbed to the political pressures, the political exigencies of the day and who now wanted to rejoin the fold alongside those who had not bent to the prevailing political winds, and who may have suffered demotion, confiscation, or may have lost a beloved father or daughter to execution. How could you exchange the peace with each other in such a case? How could those who were so sharply divided be again, one body in the One Faith?


Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, we find the exchange of the peace in our earliest baptismal liturgies. The exchange of the peace, often the kiss of peace, has been part of our worship from almost the very beginning. The exchange of the peace is meant to be a literal replication of Jesus’s instructions to us in Matthew, chapter 5, verses 23 and 24, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” You’ll notice today, that is exactly where the peace falls in our service, right before we gather and offer our gifts at the altar of God.


This has been a bruising political season. And a shocking one. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, the outcome of the election was at least a surprise, if not a shock. David Brooks, the conservative columnist, called it the biggest political shock of his lifetime. That shock can add to the disorientation that many in our country feel. And we add that to what we also have to admit is one of the sharpest political divides we’ve ever known. It’s stark, there’s no doubt about it. There seems to be no middle ground, no compromise possible, no place to come together. 

Well I’m here to tell you that is not the case here. Because this is the place where we can come together. Because what calls us to be here, and what draws us together here, is so much more that what might separate us in the world outside. And regardless of the enmity we might feel towards our political foes, we are called to set those aside here, and to wish peace to those who might have responded differently to the political realities of this, our time. 


Another thing we can do is listen. Jesus tells us in Mark and Matthew, “Those who have ears to hear, let them listen.” Some of the shock we may have felt on Wednesday morning might come from the fact that we haven’t been using our ears to hear, but rather to listen for faults in what our political opponents have said, or to listen for points we can easily counter, opinions we can quickly label deplorable. If you want an example of this, just look back at my Facebook feed this past year. I am guilty of this sin, friends. Mea maxima culpa.

Some of us may need also to speak of the disappointment we feel or the fear we feel in the wake of the election. All of us need to listen to that fear. Even when that fear is hiding underneath anger. Leading up to this election, I think many of us can look back and admit that we heard only the anger, and not the fear – and I want to be adamant about one thing this morning – anger is always the expression of fear, which lies just beneath it, just behind it; fear is always the genesis of anger; in every case, no exceptions. Anger in politics, anger in personal relationships, anger in parenting, every anger is an expression of an underlying fear.

Fear is hard to admit to, hard to express. And it is very, very hard to hear. But I think we need to express it and hear it, both. And we need to learn how to have ears to hear what those across the many divides in our country have to say. It may come to us first as anger, but our duty is to listen for and to hear the fear underneath and decide what should be the comfort and assurances that we can offer the fearful. 


You know, around here, and in many other places, the exchange of the peace each Sunday has become more of a celebration of community – that’s a very lovely and pleasant, but unintended, consequence of the return of the peace to our Sunday liturgy. I’m going to ask you that today and in the weeks ahead, we get back to basics with the exchange of the peace. Make sure that when you exchange the peace with your neighbors is not just a hello-how-are-you. Make sure to wish peace upon each other, share your peace and the peace of Christ with those around you. They may be in serious need of it. And stock up on the peace you receive from one another. And take it with you into the world, which is in very, very serious need of it also. Amen+ 

© The Rev. Mark R. Collins

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