Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The God of Love and Peace
Mt. 28:20; 2 Cor 13:11[1]
One of the blessings of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place. We can learn about what is going on in Pakistan, or Somalia, or in Japan or New Zealand almost as soon as it happens. I think that’s a very good thing, because it means that all people across all kinds of lines get to see up close and personal how much we human beings are alike. One of the curses of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place. That means that we also get to see—up close and personal—all the corruption and cruelty and violence and hatred and injustice afflicting the human family. Unfortunately, the feeling that the world is becoming a smaller place can reinforce the feeling that we have been forsaken by whatever “gods” we might have believed in. Especially the Jewish and Christian notion of a God of compassion, a God of love and peace. In the face of overwhelming cruelty and violence and injustice, it can seem incredibly na├»ve to believe in a God who is working to bring grace and mercy and peace and justice and love and life into this world!
On the surface of things, it would seem that the reality of our world contradicts the message of our gospel lesson for today. In the final chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the risen Christ is giving his final instructions to his disciples. And in the midst of it all, he gives them a couple of words of assurance: “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” and “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (Mt. 28:18, 20, Today’s NIV) I guess I would have to say that I would expect the world to look a lot different if that were the case. A world in which all authority belongs to Jesus Christ, the one who stood for peace and compassion and justice and love would, I think, bear a whole lot more evidence of peace and compassion and love! This question has vexed the minds and hearts of believers throughout the centuries. If God is so good and loving, why is there so much evil in the world? And some of the best minds through the ages have diligently sought answers.
But I’m not so sure that the answer is all that complicated. It seems to me that God’s presence in this world is no more complicated than giving and receiving compassion. It is in the small acts by which we share kindness and love with our fellow human beings that we experience the true presence of God.[2] I think that may be something of what St. Paul had in mind when he told the believers at Corinth that it is when they “agree with one another” and “live in peace” that they can be sure that “the God of love and peace” would be with them.[3] I would think it stands to reason that the only way we can experience the presence of “the God of love and peace” is if we are practicing “love and peace” in our lives. And I don’t think this works in the theoretical—I think it has to play itself out in the way we relate to those around us on a daily basis.
It seems to me that as we open ourselves in compassion to our sisters and brothers all around us, we find that there is a great deal of peace and compassion and love in the world—even in the midst of suffering and injustice. Precisely in the midst of suffering and injustice. I heard an interview this week with Sarah Shourd, one of a group of American hikers who were arrested and imprisoned in Iran, accused of spying for the U. S. government.[4] As Sarah tells her story, she recounts how she was separated from her companions, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. At first, she didn’t have any contact with anyone outside her cell. During that period of her confinement, she says that “all I did was cry and beat at the walls,” and that she came close to losing her mind during that time.
In the midst of her ordeal, Sarah says one of the things that sustained her was the compassion of Iranian women whom she never actually met, though they were her fellow prisoners. Those Iranian women, when they heard Sarah crying, would sing songs to her in English to comfort her. I find that amazing! Most them were themselves unjustly imprisoned and had every right to be angry and bitter or at least fearful and timid. And yet, in the depths of Sarah’s despair, they would cry out to her in English, “We love you Sarah!” There she was, surrounded by some of the worst of human injustice and cruelty and violence, and in the midst of all that suffering, the voice of compassion came to her, “we love you Sarah!”
I think for most of us, the reality of our world makes us tend to isolate ourselves from those around us. We stay, safely detached from everything and everyone in our world, walking around with earbuds and iPods, comfortable in our cars, withdrawing to our homes to engage with virtual reality over some kind of screen or another. And it’s no wonder we look at our world and complain, “Where is God?” It is precisely when we open ourselves to those who are around us and allow ourselves to experience their pain and suffering and share compassion and kindness with them that we experience God’s presence. That’s when we can be sure that the God of love and peace is with us, filling us all with grace and joy and life!



[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/19/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 45: “the most convincing, perhaps the primary way in which we can encounter the reality of the Divine is in the face of the other” (summarizing Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas); cf. also 181, 194
[3] I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “Be cheerful. Keep things in good repair. Keep your spirits up. Think in harmony. Be agreeable. Do all that, and the God of love and peace will be with you for sure.” (2 Cor. 13:11)
[4] Sarah Montague, Interview with Sarah Shourd, “Hardtalk,” June 10, 2011; accessed at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/hardtalk/9508967.stm .

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