To Divinity, and Beyond! Peace

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached March 27, 2011 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Psalm 122: "Peace be within you!"
Matthew 4:1-11: "Away with you, Satan!"
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Tonight's first song comes from the sixth album released by singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow. "Peace Be Upon Us" appeared on her 2008 album Detours. Let's try it:

[Verse] Walking down the street of dreams,
Eating from the fruits of life
Tripping out on the smallest things
Trying to reach the light,
trying to reach the light
Pick the key up off the floor,
Put the key into the lock
Turn the lock, open up the door
Look at all you've got,
look at all you've got
All the sinners and saints,
All you creatures of faith
Don't need to be afraid,
If you know what I mean
Let me hear you say

[Chorus] Peace be upon us,
Peace be upon us,
Be upon us all
Peace be upon us,
Peace be upon us,
Be upon us all

I was contemplating how to write up this meditation the other week while I was driving around in Columbia. I was ruminating on how best to talk about peace - what peace is - how we can embody that peace - and then spread that peace to the world.

While I was mulling this over - I was driving down Devine Street. There were utility workers in the right lane, so it was blocked off. The lane opened up again just at the entrance to Za's Pizza. The car in front of me turned right into the parking lot from the left lane because that's the only way they could get into the lot. The driver of the car coming out of the lot decided at that moment that he could cross over our lanes to turn left onto the road - and I nearly t-boned him.

The words that came out of my mouth I cannot repeat here today. I was so mad. Just because the car in front of me was turning didn't mean I was turning. Besides, there were cars coming in the other direction so he didn't have a clear shot to get into traffic anyway - yet there he was, right in front of me - looking at me like I'm the idiot.

I was so angry, I yelled about him for a couple of more miles before I realized what I had just been thinking about the moment before he so rudely interrupted me. I had been thinking about peace - about being peace - about embodying peace - and bam! - I went from peace to rage in nanoseconds.

It reminded me of an old Ellen DeGeneres standup routine where she talks about having this realization that we are all one and that our purpose here on earth is to love one another - when we can get over how irritating and rude everyone else is.

Here's her bit about driving that really hit home with me. Here's the video from You Tube (the driving bit begins about at about 6:15, but it's all funny!).

And back to the loving place ... that's what I had to do after my near accidental encounter with that rude driver - give him that "I hate you look," and back to the peaceful place ...

Claiming our divine characteristic of peace isn't as easy as one might think.

[Verse] If we speak in tongues of love
But we kill in the name of God
How can we profess to own his name
And still be so lost and still be so lost
The world will turn even when we're gone
The earth will host many souls to come
Who will write the history, tales of
Wise men, villains and innocent ones
All you shepherds and sheep
When you wake from your sleep
It will be a new day
If you know what I mean,
Let me hear you say

[Chorus] Peace be upon us,
Peace be upon us,
Be upon us all
Peace be upon us,
Peace be upon us,
Be upon us all

I can imagine our ancient Hebrew brothers and sisters would have strongly resonated with Ellen's refrain to go "back to the loving place." For their entire history, the Jewish people have displayed the same kind of schizophrenia we all do when we deal with the people around us. We know - deep inside - that we are all one - that we are all children of the same loving, still speaking God. But, at the same time, we have trouble embodying that peace for one another.

Just flip through the Psalms and you'll see this schizophrenia on nearly every page. Nearly all the Psalms follow the same pattern - the writer is angry with someone else, or tormented by an enemy, or feels that God has left him to the devices of those who hate him. So he rages against his enemy, then praises God for all the love in the world.

Take Psalm 12 for example. The psalmist writes: "Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind. They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. May the Lord cut off all flattering lips, the tongue that makes great boasts " (and back to the loving place)

Or Psalm 58: "The wicked go astray from the womb; they err from their birth, speaking lies. They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear, so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter. O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O Lord!" (and back to the loving place)

I could write one myself: "Oh, Lord, the drivers have no fear, they steer their cars with wild abandon. The ungodly swerve drunkenly to and fro with no thought of others.

God, bend their bumpers, tear out their drive-shafts, and curse them with high deductibles." (and back to the loving place)

Even though, like our Hebrew ancestors before us, we strive and thirst for peace in our time, all we can see around us a people who disturb our peace - who make us angry - who keep the fires of rage stirred within us.

In our reading today, though, we find a moment of clarity among the psalms:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: "May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers." For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, "Peace be within you." For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

Finally, the psalmist sees the real truth - there is no peace "out there." We cannot find peace by looking to other people. When we look into the world all we see is rage, violence, pettiness, fighting, and disharmony. For true peace, we cannot simply say "Peace be upon you." No, instead, we must realize the only true path to peace is, "Peace be within you" - "peace be within your walls and security within your towers."

Peace is not out here - it's in here - within your own walls, secure in the towers of your own body. Unless you can find peace in here - you will never find peace out there. As Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hahn has said: "without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace."

Peace be within you.

Breathe deeply.

All the sinners and saints,
All you creatures of faith
Don't need to be afraid,
If you know what I mean, Let me hear you say

[Chorus] Peace be within you,
Peace be within you,
Be within us all
Peace be within you,
Peace be within you,
Be within us all

Reaching that place within ourselves where we can experience true peace is terribly hard work, and often we resist it - because it doesn't come easy to us. Do you know that Adolph Hitler's original goal in life was to be an artist? It's true. Stephen Pressfield, in his book "War of Art" writes that at 18 Hitler "took his inheritance - 700 kronen - and moved to Vienna to live and study. He applied to the Academy of Fine Arts and later to the School of Architecture. Ever see one of his paintings? Neither have I. Resistance beat him. Call it overstatement but I'll say it anyway: it was easier for Hitler to start World War II than it was for him to face a blank square of canvas."

Any artist in the room can identify. The blank canvas, the blank page, can create a lot of fear and resistance. Creating something beautiful in this world is difficult and can be greatly intimidating. But, isn't that the way? Isn't it just easier to give a rude driver that "I hate you look," instead of giving them a look of compassion or love? Hate is easier than love - violence is easier than peace.

How different would the world be today if Hitler had not taken the easy way out?

Breathe deeply.

Our second song was written by singer-songwriter Nick Lowe and first came out in 1974 on one of his albums, but the song became popular only after singer Elvis Costello recorded it in 1979. The song is called "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding." Let's try it.

[Verse] As I walk through,
This wicked world
Searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity.
I ask myself,
Is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?

[Chorus] And each time I feel like this inside,
There's one thing I wanna know:
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?

In our Jesus story, we find our guy in the beginning of his ministry. He's been baptized by his cousin John the Baptist and is just getting his feet wet in this whole Messiah business.

Like most of us, after a big event in our lives, he wants a little peace and quiet - so he wanders off into the wilderness to gather himself and find that peaceful place. What he finds there though, is something we all find when we go off in search of our inner peace - we find the devil.

Now, we have mythologized the devil as this pointy tailed, horn be-decked, red-skinned demon, but I doubt that's what appeared to Jesus. Instead, the Greek word used here doesn't connote that image of the devil, instead, it means "a false accuser." Many people paint this temptation in the wilderness as Jesus literally walking around with some devilish being, but I think it's a bit more simple than that - Jesus' false accuser is the same one we all have inside. This is the false accuser that tells us we're not good enough, we're not smart enough, and doggone, nobody likes us. This is the false accuser who tells us that peace is just a pipe dream and we may as well give it up and just get on with the hatred and violence because it's what all the cool kids are doing these days anyway.

You see, Jesus is on the verge here of a very powerful public ministry, and like any human being, he's tempted to use this new power for his own glory - and not to glorify the Holy.

The accuser reminds him of his power. "Turn these stones into bread if you're hungry, Jesus. You can do it - after all you're no ordinary human - you're divine as well." That miraculous power isn't all Jesus could do - he could impress great crowds of people by throwing himself off the highest pinnacle and having the angels catch him and put him safely on the ground. Think of what a show that would be! Think of the money Jesus could make by being a death defying high-wire act. People would come in droves and hand over their money. Finally, the accuser takes him up to the mountain and shows him all the kingdoms in the world.

"All this can be yours, Jesus - just use that power of yours and you can rule the world!" That's the deal Hitler took - the chance to bring destruction into the world instead of beautiful works of art.

Note how Jesus deals with this inner accuser. At no point does Jesus fly into a rage. At no point does Jesus swear, or strike out in anger. At no point does Jesus belittle his accuser or call him names. Jesus does not violently resist evil. No, Jesus responds with a deep inner peace. He simply quotes the scripture to his accuser. No, he says, "I don't live by bread alone, I don't tempt God, and the Holy is the only power worthy of serving."

Then he says, "Away with you Satan," and the most interesting thing of all happens - the accuser goes away. He doesn't strike back in violence. The accuser doesn't keep harassing Jesus until he gets a rise from him - no, he leaves - and not only does he leave - the Greek word used here actually means "to give up." The devil gave up. He knew he had lost the battle. Do you know what that means? Peace wins and it wins every single time it comes up against evil.

As we walk through this wicked world, we can get downhearted sometimes, because all we seem to see is the evil around us. All we seem to see is the pain and hatred and misery. How in the world can we say peace wins?

The reason it seems that peace is losing so badly right now is simply because we are not convinced that peace wins, even when we see peace in action. Because we don't believe peace wins, we don't bother to work on our own divine gift of peace so we can embody it. And if we can't bring peace to our own souls, how can we bring peace to anyone else?

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] And as I walked on,
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong,
And who are the trusted? And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

[Chorus] 'Cause each time I feel it slippin' away,
just makes me wanna cry.
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding? Ohhhh
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?

Bayard Rustin was a gay black man who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Rustin was dedicated to finding his inner peace and embodying it in this world of violence.

During one peace demonstration, an opponent became so angry that he grabbed one of the protestor's signs, ripped the sign off of it, and began to beat Rustin with the stick. Calmly, Rustin picked up the stick from a nearby sign and handed it to the man telling him that he was welcome to beat him with both sticks. The action so caught the man off guard that he threw both sticks to the ground and walked away.

Peace wins! Just like Jesus' accuser, Rustin's opponent gives up and goes away. Peace wins!

But peace has become a four-letter word in our violence and blood soaked world. Peace lovers get a bad name. If you're for peace then you're some tree-hugging, arugula eating, Volvo-driving, namby-pamby who shoos flys and ants out of the house instead of getting out the can of Raid.

The world scorns those who love peace. They call peace-lovers weak, they are mocked, scorned and marginalized. By laughing at those who seek peace, the world tries to tempt us away from our quest to find our own inner peace, to put down the guns in our own minds. Instead, the world offers us the easy way out - rewarding us for our violent and divisive ways. The most partisan among us can become leaders and enjoy honor, prestige, public office, and all the power that goes with that office.

Jesus could have taken this easy way out. He could have given in to that tempter and gone on to become a famous ruler or emperor. He could have gained the world's honor. Instead, Jesus knew that no matter what the world looks like around you, peace wins. He chose the way of peace - the much harder road - one that led to his early demise. Others who have chosen peace have suffered the same fate, King ... Gandhi. Choosing to embody our divine character of peace can lead to suffering.

It can lead to an early death - but it also leads to the best place of all - an inner peace that can never be defeated by the evil of this world. The world always tries to kill peace - to shoot it down and bury it deep - but as we make this Lenten journey toward Easter, we are reminded that no matter how much peace suffers, and no matter how many times it appears to be dead and gone - it always rises again. They may have killed Jesus 2,000 years ago - but he's still alive today, or else we wouldn't be still talking about him.

Peace wins, Jubilants.

I invite you, tonight, to choose the hard path over the easy path. I invite you to disarm your own spirit. Put down the weapons of discord and violence that live in your own hearts and minds. Call a peace conference inside yourself. Wander off into the desert of your heart and mind like Jesus did. You'll face the tempter. You'll face the devil that tells you that peace is for wimps and there is no sweet harmony waiting to be found in this world.

When that devil appears, do as Jesus did - answer calmly and confidently - and invite your tempter to see the world differently - to see a world where peace wins. Then, bring that inner peace out into the world. Begin to see the world in a new way - as a place in sore need of your divine gift of peace. Every person you meet has that same divine gift of peace, and they're battling with the tempter, too. When we realize that everyone we meet is also fighting this great battle - it gets easier to approach others with peace and compassion.

There's nothing funny about peace, love and understanding, Jubilants. Peace is not for sissies - peace is for the strong, because it takes all of our faith, all of our strength, and all of our compassion to bring it about not just in our own hearts, but in the world around us.

As Stephen Pressfield reminds us: "If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food, cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff."

Peace wins, Jubilants.

Breathe deeply.

[Bridge] So where are the strong,
And who are the trusted? And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.
[Chorus] 'Cause each time I feel it slippin' away,
just makes me wanna cry.
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding? Ohhhh
What's so funny 'bout peace love and understanding?

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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Endorsed by such religious leaders as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop John Shelby Spong and named one of the Best Spiritual Books of 2008, Whosoever founder Candace Chellew-Hodge's first book Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians is making an impact in the lives of LGBT Christians.

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