Finding the Peace of God

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Year A – June 22, 2014

David H. Knight, Priest Associate

Send your Spirit, God, to open our hearts and our minds to your Word, and strengthen us to live according to tour will, in Jesus’ Name, Amen.

To most people my grandfather, Franklin Knight, was known as an  Episcopal priest who served a long and fruitful ministry as rector of St. Paul’s Church in Holyoke Massachusetts. To me, however, he was simply Grandpa.  I was twelve when he died so I was blessed with many fond memories.  I remember all the times visiting him near where we lived. I remember helping him wash his 1940 Plymouth coupe in which he took great pride. I remember him as a very strong yet gentle man.  I remember in particular one time when he was with us at our house.  It was Halloween. Being the incorrigible little monster that I could sometimes be when I was a little boy, I went into his room, a sheet wrapped over my head, proclaiming, “I am the Holy Ghost!”  He laughed and took my irreverence graciously. There was no lecture—from him that is, but there was one from my mother who was utterly appalled by my antics in the presence of her father-in-law.  If the truth be known, however, years later when I’d grown up, and I use that term loosely, my mother confessed to me when we were recalling that Halloween afternoon that she wanted to laugh at my antics that day long ago but did not want to provide any encouragement!

Years later, I would be blessed upon my ordination with being placed by Bishop Stewart as assistant to the rector of St. Paul’s, Holyoke where my grandfather had served all those years.  There I began to hear about his ministry from some of the long time members who were still there and knew and loved him.  They said he was a wonderful pastor.   Then one day I heard what confirmed what had been a family legend. I was visiting a couple at whose wedding my grandfather had officiated.  The husband told me, and I’ll never forget what he said to me, “You know, David, your grandfather had a very strong backbone especially when it came to matters of justice.”  In Holyoke those days, there was a sharp divide in the city between the wealthy mill owners and the workers in the those mills who labored long hours and under harsh conditions and who lived down in what was called “the flats” which, at best, could only be described as substandard housing.  The story goes that one Sunday as my grandfather addressed the situation in his sermon, a couple of parishioners got miffed and walked out.  The next Sunday they went down to the Congregational Church which was the other prominent protestant church in the city.  It seems that the pastor at “First Congo” whose name was Oliver Black, preached a sermon on the same subject that next Sunday.  Apparently these parishioners, bless their hearts, returned to St. Paul’s.  Years later, one of my grandfather’s successors, David Evans, under whom I would serve as his assistant, also had a strong sense of justice that had continued as a mark of that parish over the years.

Recently, I had occasion to attend a session at Virginia Seminary on the church’s response to violence in our culture.  It was led by the current dean of the Washington National Cathedral, the Very Reverend Gary Hall who described how he had been called to the cathedral as dean.  The search committee was looking for a dean who would continue in the tradition not only of being a spiritual leader of a church that was of national influence but also as one who would be a voice from the pulpit in matters of justice.  I recall his saying that there has to be a balance in one’s preaching, yet there are times when matters of justice must be dealt with if one is to be faithful to the Gospel.  One can read and even listen to Dean Hall’s sermons on the Cathedral website.  He is a powerful preacher who does not avoid matters of current impact upon people’s lives, yet places these matters firmly in the context of the Gospel.  His sermon the Sunday after Sandy Hook, for example, was timely, and it was strong.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says to his disciples.  “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.”  Then he goes on to say to them, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  These are hard words for any Sunday, yet might seem especially strong on a Sunday when we celebrate the joy of Holy Baptism. Yet these words speak directly to what it means for us to become disciples through baptism.  Perhaps at first glance, we love to glide by these words if we could, yet as Jesus speaks about discipleship, he is calling you and me to think seriously about what it means for to be a disciple of his.  The word “disciple” refers to one who is constantly willing to learn and to be open to new insights.  How can we learn, for example, to have those difficult conversations that sometimes need to take place in our families, in our places of work, and in our church, yet ones we avoid at all cost because we want to keep the peace and not ruffle feathers?  It is so much easier to glide along avoiding those conversations. But then Jesus says to us, “I came not to bring peace but a sword.”  Facing those swords about which Jesus was speaking must have been hard for the disciples just as facing them today can be very difficult for us.  But sometimes we need to ask, “What are the conversations we’re not having that need to take place?”  Or perhaps to put it another way, “What are the swords we’re not facing together?”  What can we be learning as disciples? As we learn from the teachings of Jesus and from the way he lived his life, where in our own lives, our own witness to the Gospel, do we sometimes need to take a stand?  Where in the life and witness of the church does the church need to be counted as standing up against injustice? Just a few moments ago in the service of Holy Baptism, as we welcomed Andy and Siena into the congregation of Christ’s flock, we were asked, “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”  If indeed we renounce them, then what will be our response to these evil powers?  In the Baptismal covenant, we were asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”  If we do, then what is our response?

What ultimately is it that influences what we think, what we say, and how we act?  Throughout this gospel passage this morning, the matter of obedience to God’s word implies the responsibility to encounter those swords placed in our midst with a willingness listen to and learn from the teachings of Jesus and then to decide what the appropriate response on our part will be.

Today’s passage from Matthew has a message for the church today as it has in every generation. The message is this: that at those times when the church seems simply to be content with gliding along without ever rubbing anybody the wrong way, it might well have reason to be asking the question whether or not the Jesus it proclaims is truly the Jesus we see in today’s gospel, the Jesus who said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  There were those times then when what Jesus had to say brought division among people.  He was convicted and was nailed to the cross as a result of that conviction.  But as we know, that was not the end of the story.  God raised him from the dead and has given us the Holy Spirit to be present with us to give us strength so that you and I too may be faithful disciples, that we may continue to learn and to be open to new ways of seeing things, that we may accept our responsibility to have a voice and that we can stand firm against injustice whatever it might be.  There are times now when the question becomes, “As people who profess ourselves to be disciples of Jesus, is there enough evidence to convict us?”  It was Finely Peter Dunne, a humorist who coined the phrase “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  It is often thought that these words were meant to describe the mission of the church at times, but Dunne was talking about, of all things, newspapers!  Be that as it may, there are those times when the Gospel of Christ calls us to move beyond our comfort zones and strive to learn what it truly means to be a disciple, and yes, at times to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Over the years I have often thought of my grandfather and his ministry at St. Paul’s. There is an inscription on a wall that reads,  “Franklin Knight – He went about doing good.”  That is how he was remembered.  There were times when he was there to comfort, and there were times when the sword had to be wielded, when wrongs needed to be righted, and when the church was called to be a witness to justice.  

You all can think of others as well in your lives who have been disciples and who have served as examples for you in your own discipleship. Sometimes we wonder as we look around us if justice will ever prevail yet the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who was a courageous voice if ever there was one, are worth remembering.  He said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  May you and I have the grace to receive what Jesus is saying to us as a God given opportunity face life in all its fullness as disciples willing to encounter the tough matters striving to learn and to do what Jesus is calling us to do, that in some way justice may prevail in our own day in ways and in places that we might never have thought possible.  God’s peace is not always the peace that the world seeks, but it is that peace which ultimately is worth seeking for as we sang in the hymn before the gospel this morning, 

The peace of God, it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing—
the marvelous peace of God.