May 22, 2022 - sermon - Rev. Hamilton Throckmorton

Sermon Text


     One of the things I most love in life is to walk the beach at Pine Point in southern Maine. It was a place Mary used to go to as a child, together with her family. And when she and I became an item, she introduced me to that magical spot. When she and I visit Maine in the summer, one of the highlights of our time there is the long leisurely strolls we take on that endless beach at low tide. We start at Emma’s Eats, the little shack that sells snacks and drinks, and we walk to the pier in Old Orchard Beach, and we pass the stucco house, and we look across the bay to the home where Winslow Homer summered, and we take in the sight of the seagulls and plovers roaming in the surf, and, in the early morning, when they’re allowed on the beach, we encounter the occasional panting and affectionate dog running up to us with a tennis ball in its mouth. Time stops. The need to get things done vanishes. The weight of expectations and tasks and worries disappears into the sun and the sand and the sky. All seems right with the world. And I feel at peace.


     So I’m struck this morning that, as Jesus, in the urgency of his last days, reminds the disciples what he most wants them to know, what does he tell them? “Peace I leave with you,” he says. “My peace I give to you” (John 14:27). When he’s gone, what Jesus wants for his followers is that they be filled with peace. We get the feeling that Jesus knows this peace, because the word he uses—“leave” with you—means something like “bequeath.” It’s as though the heart of what Jesus leaves them in this utterly unique estate plan of his is peace. ‘I don’t have any trinkets or bank accounts to leave you,’ Jesus seems to say, ‘but I do have this one absolutely priceless gift to leave you as I depart. What I bestow on you is the peace that surpasses all understanding (cf. Philippians 4:7). And it’s really all you need: my peace.’


     Jesus’ peace has a totally unique flavor to it. Nice as my time on the Pine Point beach is, Jesus’ peace is even more all-consuming than that. And it goes beyond anything we can feel or own. It’s certainly different from the sort of peace that advertisers or salespeople may try to goad us into buying. “We all receive catalogues in the mail” and in our inboxes, says Wayne Muller in his remarkable book called Sabbath, “with pictures of young, sophisticated [people] lounging about in natural cotton clothing loose and soft on their sculpted bodies. It seems to be late afternoon in their Victorian house; maybe they are lovers, maybe they are having tea, one hand on their golden retriever asleep at their side. A picture of perfect happiness.


     “It is a picture, of course, of Sabbath time [and of peace]. You can taste the tea, smell the flowers on the breeze, feel the gentle support of an easy chair and the soothing company of a loving dog. The job is miles away, the factory is closed; someone else is handling things. They seem to be inviting us to join them, to become part of their lives. This, they seem to say, is how we were meant to be . . ..


     “What they offer is the happiness of being young, at ease, perfect. Order this blouse, this cologne, this lingerie, this coffee maker, this bathrobe, this table setting, this rocking chair, and you will enter this picture. Troubles will dissolve, and life will be sweet. In the end they are selling this, and always this: Buy what we have, and you will be happy” (Sabbath, pp. 134-35).


     Advertising makes us think we want, or really that we need, these things to make us happy, to satisfy us, to give us peace. And it often works. I still remember, as a man in my twenties, seeing, in a store, a silver-gray jacket that said “Members Only” on the front, and thinking I had to have that jacket to be happy. I thought the same thing about a pair of suede shoes— brown suede shoes, not blue—that I bought because I thought they were the coolest things I had ever seen. I wore them maybe two or three times. And I suppose they gave me a kind of thrill.


     The truth of the matter, though, is that, like all those ads that promise bliss if you own such and such a product, those shoes and that jacket could not possibly give me what I most craved. They may have given me an ounce of satisfaction, a moment’s pleasure. But they couldn’t come close to being what I most needed, the peace that Jesus gives.


     We chase all sorts of lesser peace, don’t we, the kinds of peace that can’t ever really deliver on their promise. Maybe it’s the fully outfitted SUV, or the long-sought vacation getaway. Maybe it’s a new security system for our home. Maybe it’s a handgun so we’ll feel safe, we think. And none of these things can really reassure us or ensure our safety. Cars and homes will eventually lose their luster. A security system, while it may be reassuring, won’t keep out a determined intruder. And a handgun, while it may make us feel momentarily safer, can’t really grant the peace for which we yearn. Indeed, the proliferation of such weapons has clearly only made the society in which we live a less safe place. More often than we may care to admit, our feeble attempts at achieving a transforming tranquility may end up chasing rainbows and butterflies rather than garnering the deep peace that restores our lives.


     All of us worry. It’s part of being human. We worry about our children and our parents and our jobs and our incomes. We worry when we fear that what we hope for may not come to pass. And Jesus essentially says to us, ‘I get that you fear, that you’re anxious, that (as he says to the distracted Martha when he visits her and Mary) you’re “worried and distracted by many things” (Luke 10:41). But I have a gift for you, the greatest of all gifts. For absolutely no price, you can have this gift, and it will make all the difference in the world. All you need to do is to receive it, to open your arms and your heart and take it in.’


     “Etty Hillesum was a thoughtful young Dutch woman, a victim of the Nazi concentration camps. In the diary she kept in the midst of the Nazi occupation, she describes the tender balance between her daily forebodings and her deeper search for peace:


     “‘We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies . . .. The things that have to be done must be done, and for the rest we must not allow ourselves to become infested with thousands of petty fears and worries, so many motions of no confidence in God. Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world’” (quoted in Sabbath, p. 85).


     One moral duty: to reclaim the large areas of peace that God offers. It’s not always easy, though, to know how to absorb this peace, is it. In search of that elusive peace, we too often lean on the wrong things. Getting away from those lesser things in which we put our stock, as Hillesum writes, is paramount for living a peaceful life. Centering ourselves on God gives us the sure foundation in which we might “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).


     One way to think about taking in this peace of God is to imagine yourself sitting in a deck chair on a ship’s deck. When your priorities are off-center, when you’re trusting in inadequate foundations, you’re sitting right next to the edge of the deck, and there’s no railing, and one of the legs of your chair is barely on the deck. If someone jostles the deck, or runs into you, you’re going to fall right off and plunge into the ocean. That’s what it’s like to put our trust in something lesser, something not worthy of that trust. If you move your chair to the center of the deck, though, away from the perilous edge, then you have a safe and sustaining foundation on which to rest. You can be jostled and hit, and you’ll still be safe. Finding our peace in God is like sitting in that chair in the middle of the deck. It’s what lets us rest secure, no matter how turbulent the waters.


     One of the things that’s so difficult about accessing this peace is that it doesn’t undo the real-life challenges and disasters that so often mar our day or our life. Frank Bruni is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times. At the age of fifty-four, he woke up one morning and the vision in one of his eyes was noticeably blurred. By a few days later, he was almost completely blind in that eye, with no prospects for his vision to return.


     I’m guessing my prayer in that situation would be to implore God to restore my vision. I wonder how centered and faith-filled I would stay if my vision didn’t return. Doesn’t my bargain with God involve God doing good things for me and my being grateful in return? Isn’t that the way faith is supposed to work? How grateful would I be if my vision suddenly vanished?


     What Jesus is nudging us to, I suspect, is an entirely different relationship with God. In Jesus’ eyes, our connection with God is not transactional, as though God is there to do my bidding or enable my fondest material hopes to come to pass. God is there, instead, simply to be—there. God is there to walk with us through the grass, to accompany us in the weeding, to tend to us when we’re sick, to sit with us when we can’t solve the problem, to lean in to us when we’re so frustrated we could scream.


     And the amazing thing, the miraculous thing, is that God is working in and through us no matter how grim things may seem, no matter how bereft we may feel. Our work is simply to open ourselves to that relentless presence, and to trust that “all shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).


     One of the ways we can most easily access that divine presence is through the simple act of giving thanks. And this is especially the case when our discouragement is vast and our despair or resentment is thick. A friend of mine says that when she was going through a particularly rough patch several years ago, she set herself the basic task of coming up with five things at the end of every day for which she was grateful. Sometimes all she could muster for her first named gratitude was just, “I got up this morning.” It’s so easy and tempting to see only the challenges and frustrations of our lives, isn’t it—“nothing went right today, God. It poured raining when I was trying to do errands; my child was surly to me; my parent doesn’t get me at all; no matter what I do, I feel like dirt. Come on, God, make it better!”


     And all of those frustrations may be real. They may reflect acute failure and loss. But that’s not all there is to our lives. Even on the worst days, we got up. There are azaleas and cardinals and a smiling store clerk. There are sunshine and chocolate chip cookies and Shakira singing “Try everything.” There’s a church that loves you and wants you here and celebrates your very being. And there’s a God—the God—who adores you in life, yes, but also in death. That doesn’t fix everything that’s wrong. But it does put our problems into a different perspective. It helps us to find our seat in the middle of the ship’s deck rather than at its edge. It reminds us that life is an unbelievable gift, and we are privileged to walk this earth for the few short years we have.


     God’s peace is there—not for the taking, but for the receiving. And here’s the other gift in this. As we receive the peace of Christ, we are empowered to pass it on. Indeed, we are vital cogs in the turning wheel of that holy grace. In so many ways, we’re the ones who will make the difference; we’re the ones who will reflect that over-arching peace to an anxious and divided world. In this final soliloquy of his, as he’s bequeathing this peace to us, Jesus talks about the boundless love that exists between him and God. And it’s when we live in that love that we are most true to God’s holy purposes. It’s when we smile at each other, when we take a meal to someone who’s just had surgery, when we advocate for a world of climate care and drastically reduced gun violence and attention to those who are mired in poverty that we are part of that marvel of God’s transforming love. Peace and love go together. We’re the recipients of peace. And we are empowered to pass that peace to others. That, we might say, is the very definition of love: passing peace to each other. And as Etty Hillesum says, reclaiming that peace and reflecting it to others is our highest moral duty.


     In a luminous interview with Krista Tippett, Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, says that “the answer [to our dis-ease and disjointedness] is kinship. Everybody’s so exhausted by the tenor of the polarity right now in our country. And the division is the opposite of God, really . . .. And so what’s on Jesus’ mind [at the end of his life]? He [expresses his hope] that all may be one. And that’s kind of where we need to inch our way closer—that we imagine a circle of compassion, that we imagine nobody standing outside that circle.” Our work as Christians is to bridge the divide. And why? [Simply because] “we belong to each other.”


     And it’s all because—and it’s this truth that’s the source of our deepest peace—God is that way with us, assuring us that we belong to God. “The truth is,” says Boyle, “we’re so used to a God—a one-false-move God, and so we’re not really accustomed to the no-matter-whatness of God, to the God who’s just plain-old too busy loving us to be disappointed in us. And that is, I think, the hardest thing to believe, but everybody in this space knows it’s the truest thing you can say about God” ( God is just plain-old too busy loving us to be disappointed in us.


     So walk the beach, knit, watch baseball, cook, read, binge-watch your favorite series—do whatever it is that lowers the temperature of your life and tempers its worry and anxiety. But most of all—most of all—remember this: that the deepest peace is the peace we get from God. We sit in the midst of the deck, not at its edge. We are held always in arms of holy love. And we are invited to share that peace with each other. Take a good look at the simple message above the lintel as you leave the sanctuary this morning: “Depart in peace.” That’s the transforming gift we’ve been given. Peace that enables us and empowers us to love. May it always be so.