True Peace is Hard to Come By

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on June 25, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost:
Romans 6:1b-11 + Matthew 10:24-39


Please pray with me:

Holy God,
We say we want peace,
Yet true peace is hard to come by.
Guide us as we walk down this path of discipleship.
And remind us again that you walk with us.


One of the things I hated most about being a kid was getting hurt. Scrapes, bumps, bruises, cuts, gashes…I got them all. I loved riding my bike more than anything, so all of those were basically a weekly occurrence.
I hated the cuts and bumps and scrapes most because 1) it meant playtime had to be put on pause, but 2) because the process of cleaning up scrapes and gashes and cuts is really quite terrible.
See, because before you put a bandaid or neosporin on it, you have to clean it. Really well.
You have to wash it with water, maybe a little soap, maybe put some hydrogen peroxide on it, and if you’re anything like me, you’re thinking back to when you had to do that last part and you’re cringing a little bit, right?

In order for wounds to heal well, they have be cleaned. And that part is awful, sometimes as bad as the injury itself. But it is necessary in order for good healing to happen.

In our Gospel this morning, we hear Jesus saying one of the most un-Jesusy things in all of the Gospels, “I’ve not come to bring peace, but I’ve come to bring a sword.” It’s a hard thing for us to hear from the one we call the Peaceful One. But I do think Jesus is talking about peace here.
It’s just that I think Jesus is talking about a deep, abiding, true peace, rather than the things that masquerade as peace these days. That abiding peace—that true peace—in Hebrew is Shalom.

Jesus is saying here that true peace is hard to come by.
And I think deep inside our heart of hearts, we know that to be the case. That so much of what passes as peace these days is a false peace. False peace is a peace that is gained by violence. False peace is a peace that is peaceful for some, but not for all.
But true peace—that abiding peace—I think we know, is a long, arduous, and sometimes painful road.

Because true peace requires you to confront some pretty ugly things about yourself. It forces you to recognize and be honest about the ways in which you’ve distanced yourself from your neighbor, how you’ve hurt or harmed those you once called family, and how you’ve used your words to cause injury or violence rather than building up and healing.

I think this poem by Christian Wiman that we’re using as our Confession during this Season of Pentecost does a pretty good job of naming this: “For all the pain passed down the genes or latent in the very grain of being; for the lordless mornings, the smear of spirit words intuit and inter…”
Right? These ways in which our words smear the spirits of others. Or the pain we cause others because it’s inherent to our very being, our DNA is infused with this sense of separation from God, and our innate inclination is to distance ourselves from our neighbors or the other.
Look deep inside yourself. Isn’t that true of you?

That’s what St. Paul is talking about when he writes about our “old self.” That the sinful posture of humanity is one of turning away from God. That’s been true of humanity from the beginning.
SparrowAnd we have to fight with every fiber of that being to overcome those tendencies. It takes a conscious choice on our part to try to live in reconciled relationships with God and with each other. And it’s not a one and done thing, we have to recommit ourselves to that difficult work of reconciliation and peace-making again and again, day after day, morning after morning, Sunday after Sunday. We come to this place to hear God’s word of forgiveness; that every single hair on your head has been counted, numbered, and named; that you, precious child of God, are worth so much more than a thousand sparrows; that neither height nor depth, that nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus; that if you have been joined to Christ in a death like his, how much more surely, dear people, will you be united with Christ in a resurrection like his.

True peace is hard to come by.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was preaching a sermon on these verses from Matthew said, “Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

When we truly follow Jesus in this path of discipleship…when we take seriously the call given to us in our baptism to actively work for peace and justice in the world…when we internalize what the Reverend Doctor King noted that “No one is free until all are free” and that our liberation as humanity is inextricably tied together and caught up in “an inescapable network of mutuality”…when we really, actually work for and make justice a reality in our unjust communities…when we take up our own cross and follow Jesus…that’s how we start down the way of true peace.

But let’s be clear about where that way leads.
If you pick up your cross, if you undertake the difficult work of creating and cultivating justice, you will find yourself with Jesus along the way of the cross. And that way leads to death.

You will die to yourself, and you will have started to live for others.
You will lose your life, but in losing your life you will have gained it.

The path of discipleship, this way of the cross, is one marked by wounds and scars.
And it’s especially through the wounds and scars of the One we follow in this way of hard-fought, abiding, true peace that God gives life to all of God’s creation…including the sparrows.


“Who Is My Neighbor?”

Since I’ll be needing to do this regularly soon myself, I thought I’d get back into the habit of forming some thoughts for preaching this weekend.

The Revised Common Lectionary texts for this weekend:
Amos 7:7-17 + Psalm 82 + (or Deuteronomy 30:9-14 and Psalm 25:1-10) + Colossians 1:1-14 + Luke 10:25-37


I don’t believe I could preach a sermon this weekend without explicitly naming Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. These two African-American men were murdered by law enforcement officers, one in Baton Rouge, LA and the other in a suburb of the Twin Cities in MN.

I don’t believe I could preach a sermon this weekend without explicitly saying their names, Alton and Philando, because in the Gospel reading for the day, Jesus tells a narrative about a man who was making his way from Jerusalem to Jericho when he was attacked, stripped, beat, and left for dead.

Of course, the difference between the story Jesus tells and the horrific atrocities on repeat on our news feeds is that the man in Jesus’s story was left for dead, and Alton and Philando were shot until they were dead.

But the lawyer’s question in Luke 10:29 still resonates like a deafening indictment.

Who is my neighbor…?


altonandphilandoMost of the time, the church has seen itself as the Samaritan who stops and renders aid, or the innkeeper who takes care of the man after the Samaritan pays him. But Church, I have to be honest, I don’t believe we are either. See, when men like Alton and Philando, Eric and Michael, or babies like Trayvon and Tamir, are being murdered in our streets, we’ve been the priest and the Levite.
We pass by, unable to even glance down and see the blood that stains the ground. Unable to name our complicity in sacrificing these bodies on the altars of “Wait and see…” and “If he had done what he was told…”


Church, our response to the lawyer’s question makes all the difference. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that our response to this question will determine whether there is any hope for the future of the Church.

Our response to this question must be that Alton and Philando are our neighbors.
Unequivocally, our neighbors are those that our society seems hell-bent on destroying.
That society seems hell-bent on crucifying.


The prophet Amos has a word of warning for us. “There is a plumb line.”
God has set a plumb line in the midst of God’s people, and where God’s people live unjustly and without regard for the most oppressed and vulnerable in society, God will lay waste to their sanctuaries and make their cities desolate.


I pray, with Paul to the people in Colossae, that we, as people of God, bear fruit and grow in the knowledge of God. Because that will mean that we regard the Alton’s and Philando’s in our communities as God regards them.
As beloved children of God, infinitely precious, and immeasurably worthy.


Christ does not pass by on the side of the road. Christ doesn’t even stop to render aid.

Christ lies in the dirt. On the parking lot. In the car. On the street.

Christ lies stripped, beaten, bloody, broken, shot, murdered, executed.
Christ is crucified, again and again, while we struggle, and debate, and try to respond to the lawyer’s question.

Who is my neighbor?


Advent Devotional: Friday, January 2: Ninth Day of Christmas

The Roman Rite for this Christmas week has a lovely verse to be said at prayer,

When peaceful silence lay over all, and the night had run half of her swift course, your all-powerful word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven, from the royal throne.

I love and imagine the almost hushed tones that this is spoken in. Reverence and awe are the two words that come to my mind.

But what about when the world is full not of peaceful silence, but of chaos and calamity? Would God’s word still appear? Would God still leap from the royal throne to intervene?

If I were to depict the birth of Jesus as happening today, I’d probably have Jesus being born in downtown Chicago, or perhaps just west of the loop, or perhaps on Cermak in Chinatown.

I’d have car horns blaring, car alarms going off, and random shouts in the street. I’d have sirens racing by to head to this park or that where a scuffle has erupted.

Or maybe Jesus would be born in Rogers Park or Edgewater. Maybe Jesus would be born in the back alley of Lincoln Square, in the shadow of the trendy Goosefoot with nowhere to lay his head but an old vegetable crate as Mary ponders her next move and Joseph heads around the corner to try and scrounge up enough change for a room at the Diplomat Motel up on Lincoln.


I love the peaceful nature of the Christmas story. But I need Jesus most when all is not peaceful.


Perhaps this is something to ponder this Christmas season: how can we, as bearers of Christ, bring the idyllic peace of Christ that the Nativity story evokes into situations where peace isn’t present?


Questions for reflection: When do you need God the most? Can you name a specific situation where God was needed but hard to find? What tangible way can you bring Christ into a crisis?