An Uneasy Peace

NicholaBy Nichola Torbett (in center of photo, blockading Wells Fargo in San Francisco in solidarity with Line 3 Pipeline fighters/water protectors). Sermon re-posted with permission from The Longing is the Compass blog

I choked my own self up preaching this sermon (Sunday, May 26) at the very hospitable and loving Park Presidio United Methodist Church. The scripture is John 14: 23-31.

Happy Eastertide! Although, if you’re anything like me, Easter feels like a long time ago, we are still in the liturgical season of Easter, which I think maybe we take a little too blithely, honestly. I mean, resurrection is just plain weird. Let’s admit it. The guy was dead, and then he wasn’t.

Isn’t.

This should shake us up a little bit, or a lot, just as it did the original disciples. The scripture readings from the past few weeks are mostly a series of hauntings. The risen Jesus is showing up all over the place—in the graveyard on Easter Sunday, then in the upper room, offering his wounds to Thomas, and at the barbecue pit on the beach and on the road to Emmaeus. Is it a ghost? Or a stranger who somehow, achingly, reminds them of their late teacher? Or something entirely new that they and we have no concepts for understanding?

I think if we take this resurrection business seriously, it should knock us out of our default sense of certainty, our sense that we pretty much understand the world and how it works. It should shake up our tidy assumptions, including the conviction that we understand what life is and what death is, what success and failure are. Are we willing to be shaken up like this? To have called into question everything we thought we knew about God and salvation and security and the topic that comes up in today’s lectionary, which is peace? Can we tolerate this much mystery?

It’s in the midst of this kind of radical uncertainty that Jesus offers these words. You see, the speech we just heard is from Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. It’s Passover, and the disciples likely have freedom on their minds. I imagine they think they know what salvation is going to look like. They are really excited about all they have witnessed and learned from Jesus, and they are probably thinking that something really marvelous and impressive is going to happen, like, maybe a coup! Maybe the Roman Empire is going to be *impeached*, and finally the injustice would end. Things are going to get so much better for them and for their people!

But Jesus has instead just announced that he is going away—now, just as things were about to get really good—and they can’t come where he is going. Oh, he’ll be back for them, he says, but they can’t get a straight answer about when, or how. This is not at all the climactic victory they were hoping for. And it’s at that moment that Jesus has the audacity to speak to them about peace.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

It’s a ridiculous command, the kind my housemate Jean calls “Jesus’ crazy talk.” “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Seriously, Jesus?

What kind of peace is this? What kind of peace can there be a moment like that? What kind of peace might there be at a moment like…this? I kept feeling, as I wrestled with this scripture, that I needed to thread a needle, because there are so many near interpretations of this scripture that are either impotent in the face of evil or offensive in their blindness to it.

“I do not give to you as the world gives,” Jesus says, and a good thing that is, because the world, then and now, understands peace as something we secure for ourselves and our group by subjugating everything and everyone outside of our bubble and then hiding the evidence from ourselves. Peace as the world understands it can only ever involve domination and denial, bigger and higher walls to separate us from the price paid for our so called peace, the Pax Americana—a quiet dinner at home while the farmworkers who harvested our vegetables battle cancer with no healthcare, a romantic stroll on the beach where earlier this week another emaciated gray whale calf washed up dead, a round of golf at Mira Lago as US-sponsored bombs blow limbs off Yemeni children, because the Pax Americana, like the Pax Romana on which it is modeled, requires, if not a pre-emptive strike, at least the threat of one.

What kind of peace is this? What is Christ’s peace, if not the peace of the world?

It almost feels offensive to me to speak of peace. It feels like peace is the purview of the hyper-privileged, those who can afford to get away to a yoga retreat in the mountains where they “om” while the rest of the world burns. How do we speak, now, on the brink of climate collapse and imminent wars over water, of peace?

I came across a suggestion that helped me this week. One of the commentators I was reading suggested that Jesus probably wouldn’t have given this farewell speech in the calm, matter-of-fact tone in which we might hear it now, from this safe distance. Instead, we have to remember that this is a man who is about to undergo the greatest ordeal of his life, about to be delivered into the hands of a state that viewed him as an insurrectionist and a competitor for the throne. These are the last words he can give to his followers, and we might imagine him fighting back tears, struggling to ground himself so that he can dig deep and give his friends something worth hanging onto throughout the cataclysm to come.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

This is not some easily purchased peace, no sanguine serenity here, but the conviction of a soon-to-be convict who is about to lose everything, or rather, to give it, consciously, for his friends’ benefit and the benefit of the world, although his disciples can’t understand that yet. Jesus is confronted, here in this passage and in the garden scene that immediately follows it, with the ultimate struggle—the struggle to surrender everything he holds dear—his beloved community, every modicum of safety and security, every hope of victory, as it is commonly understood, even every shred of bodily integrity—and yet he speaks—struggles, I imagine, to speak—of peace.

WHAT IS THIS PEACE?

There is, in Christian tradition, a practice called memento mori, or the contemplation of death, including the inevitability of one’s own. Other traditions have similar practices. In fact, in certain forms of Buddhism, it is common to meditate in cemeteries, in the presence of skeletons, and even in the presence of corpses. To a death-denying culture like ours, this practice seems morbid, but it is an attempt to come face to face with the inescapable reality of death, the sure knowledge that everything and everyone we love is in the process of passing away, and in the acceptance of that, to find some kind of peace.

I moved to California in 2006 for a dream job….Well, a temporary dream job with no guarantee of continuing beyond four months….Okay, a temporary, four-month dream job that paid about a third of what I was making in my corporate job in Minnesota. Naturally, I accepted immediately! And then the terror set in. What had I been thinking, to move to a place with a much higher cost of living to make 1/3 as much, a place where I knew almost no one? And what would happen after four months? How would I survive? And I also remember, late one night back in my bed amidst the packing boxes in St.Paul, realizing that I was going to die. I mean, not immediately. Maybe not even after four months! But eventually. And I wanted to live before I died. Once I reckoned with the fact that my life was short, I never again doubted my decision to risk following the tug on my heart. I felt some nervous excitement, but also an abiding peace.

Today I am so grateful that I made that choice, even though my life since then has involved one swan dive after another into the reservoir of financial uncertainty and interpersonal vulnerability.

In his book Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen attempts to explain what he calls the “spiritual life” to a non-believing friend using the traditional communion language; the chapters are named Taken, Blessed, Broken, and Given. In them, he tenderly describes how each of us is taken—chosen—by God, blessed (or affirmed as Beloved), broken open (sometimes painfully so), and given for the world—given in both life, through our gifts, talents, and unique presence, and then again in death, as our spirits are freed to descend upon all who knew us (and I love how he says this–“free of the wounds and fears that limited our expressions of love during life”).

Today I think maybe Christ’s peace comes in knowing that each of us has been taken by God—chosen to be a part of something infinitely beautiful and mysterious, that we are beloved, that when we are broken and wounded, the wounds can be transformed into a blessing for ourselves and others as we allow ourselves to be given to and for this stunningly beautiful world. Unlike the world’s peace, which requires denial and domination, Christ’s peace arises from radical and total presence and vulnerability. It is characterized not by numbness but by humility, gratitude and joy.

Amidst all the tumult, travesty and tribulation of these apocalyptic times, maybe our purpose is actually quite simple—to listen for the stirring of the Holy Spirit that God sends us, prompting us to give ourselves lovingly to the world.

I recently learned that there is a kind of tree that produces seed just once in its long life—imagine consummating your love for the world only once in your life! After long years of reaching deep into the soil and simultaneously up toward the sun, this tree suddenly bursts forth with seeds that fall to the ground, but oh no! Down in the hummus, there is no light for them to germinate—the giant, full-grown trees around them totally block out the sunlight….until, not long after seeding, the parent tree dies, falls, and then, in the newly opened space, nourished by the decaying wood of their parent, the seedlings sprout. Life giving itself for new life.

In a world that beautiful, it feels right that we be haunted…. Haunted by all who have come before us and given themselves that we might have our chance at life and so at giving ourselves. We are haunted by the risen Christ in the face of every person we meet. We are haunted by Jesus in those hungry children and exhausted adults who are arriving in utter vulnerability on our border, those who have died, yes, but also those who are alive. We are haunted by Jesus in the hulking, silky bodies of those gray whales, silently calling to us, calling to us to pay attention, to love them, to do something, to give ourselves for them and for their relatives, all of our relatives. This may not be very peaceful. As James Perkinson puts it, Jesus “became the cry of his people,” just as Mike Brown became the cry of his, and that little girl who became the sixth child to die in ICE custody inside of a year, a child whose name we don’t even know, became the cry of her people. God incarnates in us to become the cry of our people.

May every living creature who has ever died unjustly convict us, dog us, haunt us into a tenderness that gives itself to bring about an end to the terror. This kind of haunting is not antithetical to Christ’s peace. It is the doorway to it.

I want to close with a story that was told to me by my friend Dave Belden, who grew up in a British Christian movement called the Oxford Group, which eventually gave birth to Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 step fellowships. He told me a story about a member of that group who served as a chaplain on a hospital ship during World War II. One day, the ship was torpedoed and hit, and it began to sink. They were able to get all the mobile, all the ambulatory patients into lifeboats, but there was no way to accommodate the soldiers who were bedridden, so the chaplain went into the ward where the bedridden were, these men whom he had grown to know and care for, and he began to lead them in singing hymns as the ship was evacuated. Finally, the time came when everyone was loaded, and the lifeboats were about to be lowered, and someone arrived to tell him that he needed to go get on the lifeboat, and he turned to him, the other men still singing around him, and he said, “No, I’m right where I need to be. I’m leading the singing.”

I believe that man knew the peace of Christ—taken, blessed, broken, and given. May each of us know it as well.

Now turn to your neighbor and say: “The peace of Christ be with you.” What you are doing is assuring that person that they have been chosen, that they are beloved, and that they are being given for something incredibly huge and mysterious. Now turn to your other neighbor and say: The peace of Christ be with you.” May it be so!

Amen

One thought on “An Uneasy Peace

  1. Sister Nichola,

    I was so caught up in this your EASTER Wells Fargo story that it connected to an EASTER CELEBRATION that my wife, my oldest boy Bill (17 at the time) & I attended in Pittsburgh on Easter Sunday itself (1985). It involved a coalition of local labor radicals & clergy called DMS, notorious for protesting the corporate-established church alliance which turned this “coalition for the least of these” into seasoned jailbirds. While working on my MEMOIRS from 1968 on I found my 1985 response to this Easter action, so similar to yours that I felt the need to say THANK YOU! So, yes, THANK YOU for your testimony.

    In solidarity,
    Oz

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