Peace and Joy
Events from the past week have provided us another opportunity to contemplate what it means to live as responsible Christians in a world where the human landscape is constantly disrupted by such things as natural disasters, acts of violence, financial setbacks, the sudden loss of a family member or a friend.
We have seen via television in our living rooms the aftermath of a massive and destructive tornado that killed 24 people, injured hundreds, severely damaged over 12,000 homes in a matter of minutes, and changed forever the lives of the people who lived in Moore, Oklahoma. It will most likely cost more than 2 billion dollars to rebuild and it will take time, fortitude, and patience.
Bystanders used cell phones to photograph a brutal murder on an East London street as two radicalized Muslims take the life of a 25 year old soldier, home from Afghanistan. A wife grieves. A 2 year old son will never know or remember his father. How will these two people embrace the future, with hope or hate?
A physician makes his way down the hallway trying to get words right in his head for he is about to enter a hospital room in order to share what he knows will be earth-shaking news: You have cancer. All of a sudden a husband and wife come to terms with a reality that none of us can escape: Our future is not infinite.
This Memorial Day weekend, we are invited to take pause and remember the ultimate sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands who gave their lives in armed conflict on the battlefield, at sea, or in the air, men and women who will never, ever come home.
When I served Marines in the field and Sailors at sea, first as a corpsman and then years later as a chaplain, I often thought about two things as I do now every time I visit the National Cemetery on Boundary Street or watch the parade in downtown Beaufort on Memorial Day. First, I ponder the amphibious assault at Normandy, the close quarter fighting in the Pacific islands, the cold and uncomfortable fox-hole in Korea, the wet and sweltering jungles of Vietnam, the dangerous highways and villages of Iraq and Afghanistan, and I wonder. I wonder about the place of faith and courage in my life, and the level of thanksgiving for what so many have done in order that we might be free.
And second, in light of the sacrifice of those who died and never had the opportunity to come home to hug a wife or child, to continue their education, to work and enjoy the American Dream, to play a round of golf, watch a baseball game, or swim at the beach, do I appreciate and respect the blessings I enjoy as an American? How does history, and the sacrifice and death of so many, impact my life today?
In today’s New Testament lesson the Apostle Paul addresses the biblical themes of peace and rejoicing. I believe that every sane person yearns for peace. We desire peace between nations. We pray for peace in our marriages and workplaces. As Christians, we pray most importantly for peace in our hearts and believe that our words and actions are predicated on an accurate understanding of peace. One of the things I look forward to each Sunday is the formal sharing of Christ’s peace and sharing the words: May the peace of Christ be with you. And participating in the gracious response: And also with you.
But let me ask you, where is peace and rejoicing especially when we see so much suffering? Why does peace appear to be so elusive? It may come to the surprise of some who aspire for a world of perfect harmony that Paul would even address the subject of suffering. How many books do you see advertised or listed as a bestseller on the issue of suffering? It is not a popular subject. We do everything in our power to avoid suffering. But let me be clear. I don’t say this to make anyone feel guilty. It is a part of our human DNA to avoid suffering. We would much rather find our place in settings where people are not hungry or naked, poor and sick, alone and afraid.
To suffer means to feel pain or to experience great distress. We suffer when circumstances of life turn against us, and we experience setbacks and disadvantages. We don’t like storms and bad news or significant bumps in the road that disrupt normal patterns of daily living. And yet, as much as we may try to avoid it, suffering still plays a significant role in the human condition.
But let us not be confused here this morning. Paul did not suffer because of poor health, job displacement, financial insecurity, a bad marriage, war or some other unfortunate human circumstance. He suffered because of his faith. Paul suffered because of his willingness and commitment to keep the faith and bear witness to the faith when the odds were against him. People opposed him and tried to discredit him in public. People tried to politically intimidate Paul and when that did not work they beat him physically to a pulp. They tried to run him out of town, incarcerated him and when he would not recant his faith, Rome finally eliminated his powerful voice.
Paul knew the meaning of suffering. But suffering from a Christian perspective has certain advantages that non-Christians neglect to see, advantages like perseverance, character, and hope.
I still remember the feeling during that early morning hour on the 17th of January 1991 when my sleep was interrupted by the following announcement: “Battle Stations! Battle Stations!” 350 Sailors and Marines quickly scurried to their appropriate station as a good friend of mine, an elder in a Presbyterian Church in Norfolk, VA launched the first cruise missiles against Iraq. I also remember Maundy Thursday in 1991 when Kay, Lillian, Liesle, Laura, and Sam and 30,000 other people stood waiting on a pier in Norfolk to welcome us home. I remember the parade down Broadway later that June in New York City, the millions of people, the tons of ticker tape, the wild celebration, the hospitality of that large and wonderful city.
But there is something else I also remember. The United States flag in our sanctuary was given to this church by the late Pres Edwards, a faithful member of this congregation, in loving memory of his son, Jonathan Edwards, an Air Force Pilot, who was “Killed in Action” flying a mission somewhere over Iraq. I came home from the Gulf War to a great kiss, warm embraces, a good supper, and my own bed. Jonathan did not. Instead, he rests in Arlington Cemetery.
According to Jesus, there is much the Holy Spirit will make known to us as time passes. On this Memorial Day Weekend, may the Holy Spirit teach us how to grow in our faith in order that we might give appropriate responses to the storms and tragedies of life, responses that speak of a peace that passes all understanding, and a spirit of rejoicing even when the wind blows and the rain falls and we find ourselves swept off our feet.
In closing, in a few minutes Jesus is going to share with us another blessing. Following the benediction, we’re going home to be with family and friends, to rest, swim, play golf, walk boundary street, to watch and listen to Candice Glover sing the national anthem tonight in Washington, DC. Friends, we get to go home.
And as we prepare to make our way home, may we abide in the peace and joy of the Lord, mindful of the men and women who died that we might rest our heads on a pillow tonight as a free people. But most of all, may we find our peace and joy in the Lord Jesus who has given of himself by way of the cross and been raised from the dead so that we might have hope and eternal life.
This is the ultimate freedom, my friends, to live in a world filled with storms and suffering and know the peace and joy that comes in knowing Jesus Christ. In the name of the Trinity. Amen.