Feb 28th | The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming | John 14:15-17
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When I was growing up, all of our family vacations were taken by car. I didn’t set foot on an airplane until I was in college. Driving was the way we got everywhere.
And it didn’t matter how near or how far we were going. Trips to North Carolina (towing a travel trailer), to Atlantic City, to Florida, to Canadota Lake in Pennsylvania - all were taken by car. The trunk would be packed to capacity. Lunch would be packed and we would eat lunch along the roadside (at least for the first day). We would be crammed into the car with no sound system other than a radio and no television or on-board entertainment of any kind. We would have books and car BINGO cards and we would sing songs as a family.
The way we got to where we were going, in those pre-GPS days, was a map. A cumbersome, large, demonically folded map. On some occasions, we would have a device called a “triptik,” which was obtained by a friend or relative with AAA. As I recall, it was a print version of what my GPS screen now offers me. But it got us to where we were going.
I liked the map then and I like the GPS screen in my van now. I like to know where I am on the journey and how much of the journey remains. I like knowing what is behind me and what is before me, if for no other reason, I like to know when we are going to arrive at our destination.
This desire does not serve me well in ministry. There are times - too many to count - when I do not remember where we have been and I have no clue as to where we are going. Ministry is not able to be put on a map. There is no ministerial GPS system. On the journey of ministry, there are detours, construction zones, and road closed signs.
And that is equally true on the way to peace. Navigating the journey of peace is not an easy matter. If you need evidence of that, simply look at the history of peacemaking attempts throughout the world. In Israel and Palestine, peace has proven elusive for decades. The peacemaking efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina took years to finalize at the cost of 100,000 lives and 2.2 million people being displaced. The wars in the Congo have taken a toll of 5.4 million lives, most of which were lost to starvation and disease. Add to that more recent history the history of the past, with the loss of life in World Wars 1 and 2, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the lesser conflicts where people were displaced, children and adults were maimed, and death tolls continued - and continue - to climb.
If peace were a simple thing we would have achieved it a long time ago.
Consider other forms of brokenness in our world. If you want to get an argument going, simply begin a conversation about climate change. The evidence of something being wrong with our climate is overwhelming. Simply consider a snowstorm and freezing temperatures that shuts down a state like Texas. Consider the thousands of acres and hundreds of homes lost every year to raging forest fires. Look at the efforts to empty wetlands of their waters and the negative impact that will have on the environment. The planet is broken and efforts to return it to wholeness are riven with conflict - political, which too often means economical.
Consider the brokenness of the systems which are meant to assist and aid families. Efforts to pull money out of the public school system will reduce the effectiveness of a commonwealth system that has educated children and young people for generations. Foster care and adoption policies are limiting the ability for children to find a family. Many single parent households struggle to make ends meet. Affordable and safe childcare is costly and often beyond reach.
If we are willing to take off our rose-colored glasses and have a serious and critical look around, we will see brokenness, fragmentation, malfunction, and destruction. The fractured world is real - whether we like to admit it or not.
So, how do we progress on the way to the promise of peace? Jesus gives us the starting point. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Well, that sounds simple enough. But what are the commandments?
Is Jesus talking about the Ten Commandments? Probably not explicitly. This passage from John’s gospel is part of what is sometimes referred to as “the Upper Room Discourses.” Set at the meal on night of his betrayal and arrest, the gospel of John gathers together a collection of sayings, placing them in that room and on Jesus’ lips.
If you go back and look for a reference to a “commandment,” what Jesus is talking about becomes clear. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) That commandment comes directly on the heels of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.
And the connection between loving one another and peace now is clear. “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.” When we practice love for one another, peace follows. Love and peace are inextricably bound together.
When you stop and think about it, that should be obvious. When we are living out of love for the other, we are looking for the best of everything for that person. We do not wish to see them harmed. We do not wish to see them in pain. We do not wish any form of diminishment for them. We want them to be whole, to be well, to be secure, to be happy.
But when selfishness creeps in, when envy is afoot, when greed rears its ugly head, peace is destroyed and confrontation is unleashed. When our needs are greater than the needs of others, injustice is often not far behind. When our desires override our understanding of right and wrong, chaos follows in our wake.
If the old maxim is true, that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” then the journey to peace begins by loving one another. When we love one another, the peace that Jesus promises becomes real. When we love one another - with the love that Jesus commends to us - we seek the best for the other. We seek food for the hungry. We seek drink for the thirsty. We do what we can to bring the wholeness to life to those who are suffering brokenness. The by-product of this love - and these expressions of love - is peace.
One of the greatest preachers America has ever produced was The Reverend Dr. Fred Craddock. Craddock began as a pastor/preacher but eventually rose to be the Bandy Professor of Preaching at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. He was known for his extensive anthology of stories, all of which were true and drew on experiences from his own life. He shares this story with us:
My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, “I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, another pledge. Right? Isn’t that the name of it? Another name, another pledge.” That’s what he always said.
Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, “There’s one now, sic him, get him, get him,” and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, “The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.” I guess I heard it a thousand times.
One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, “It’s too late.” They put in a metal tube, and X rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. And even the tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church.
He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the wide of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written that line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: “In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.”
I said, “What is your story, Daddy?”
And he wrote, “I was wrong.”
My hunch is, that at the end of his life, Craddock’s father, for whom he was named, came to a peace because of the love shown him by others. He was loved - received expressions of love - was comforted by love - and found peace.
That kind of love makes a difference - more than we know. To be aware that another human being cares about us, recognizes our humanity, accepts our brokenness, can see past our flaws - what greater gift is there, really? To love another with the closest imitation of the love we have received from God - what greater calling is there? To love without condition or stipulation is to take the first step on the thousand mile journey to peace.
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another… 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.”
Love, which leads to peace, and is more than we know.
For now and evermore. Amen.