One of my mentors at Yale Divinity School used to remind me that the old English word “parson” is an apt way to think of a priestly vocation. The word derives from the Scottish word for person and it’s helpful to remember that clergy are just people. We’re not superheroes, we’re not perfect (a fact that has surely not escaped your notice) and we don’t have all the answers.
What we are is called — called to live out the day-to-day struggles and challenges of this mortal life in the midst of our beloved communities, equipped with interpretive tools that help us all shape critical conversations about life and death and doubt and faith.
I am reminded of this teaching as we welcome John back into our midst after the death of his father. He is one of us, a human subject to the same griefs and losses we all experience. Our hearts go out to him and Deanne, Jack, Meg, and Sarah; to his brother Andy and family; and to his mother, Robbie.
We know that John will need our support and encouragement as he begins what many of us know to be the painful, often unpredictable, journey of grief. Sadly, he is not alone on this journey. We’ve experienced a number of deaths in this community in the nine short months that I’ve been here. And grief is not limited to death. Loss comes in a myriad of ways: job loss, loss of health, loss of friends, loss of dreams, loss of basic human dignity and civil rights, loss of serenity due to all sorts of difficulties.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of John was actually the appointed Gospel reading three weeks ago and Rachel did a wonderful job of preaching on it. I’ve brought it back because it’s one of my very favorite texts and in an intuitive way I believe it bears repeating.
It might even bear memorizing, the way some of us used to memorize Bible verses when we were kids, because memorized verses can become immediate sources of comfort and inspiration when we are struggling.
I would especially commend to your memory these words,“ 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.”
Jesus did not shrink from discussing death and dying, loss and separation, with his disciples. He told them in no uncertain terms about his impending death–many times, in fact. In this reading from John, which is part of what is known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, he made it very clear that they were not going to be orphaned. He promised that the Holy Spirit would come to teach them and help them remember all the things he had said. And his final legacy was the gift of peace.
We know that Jesus made good on his promise of the Spirit. What a great celebration we just had as we recalled the first Pentecost where the Spirit appeared like a mighty wind and empowered timid, disheartened disciples to reach out to every nation with the good news that God’s love transforms lives! It felt almost like a party last week as we reveled in the Spirit’s power to create a community of believers through all time and space, including our Forest Hill Church family.
But the reality is that when the party was over we still had to go back to our lives, to whatever burdens, fears, doubts, and losses were waiting for us. The truth of the matter is that no matter who we are it’s a safe bet that we need the peace Jesus offers.
In our Adult Education class on vulnerability we talked about peace, particularly in the words of the Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
If I only had one tool to see me through life and share with others, I suspect it would be the Serenity Prayer. This prayer teaches us in very simple terms to accept our human limitations. Whenever I get clear on my limitations I know I must turn my life and will over to God. That surrender isn’t an abdication of my responsibilities, nor is it magical thinking. Rather it is an understanding that God can do for me what I cannot do for myself when I am willing to commend myself to God’s care.
Every time I manage to admit what I cannot do it on my own, my mind becomes quiet, my vision clears, and my heart opens to the sustaining love that is all around me.
It can be really tempting to seek our security and identity in all the wrong places. We often look to the shiny objects of this world–impressive resumes, the approval of others, and material wealth.
In our human brokenness we have also been tempted to believe we can find peace through walls and weapons and hatred of anyone who is different from us.
Some of us are tempted by perfectionism–if we can only get things right in our relationships, in our bodies, in our neighborhoods, in any of our efforts or projects–then we will feel safe, free from the nagging sense that we are not enough. And so we strain and we struggle and never quite find the peace we so desperately seek.
The peace Jesus offers doesn’t come with strings attached. It’s not something we can manipulate or earn by trying to get it all right. In fact, it often comes smack dab in the middle of suffering. He bequeathed peace to his disciples on the night of his betrayal and arrest, showing us that peace is not an absence of conflict or pain, but a knowing who and whose we are in the very midst of life’s storms.
Now it may be easier said than done to not let our hearts be troubled or to not be afraid. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t quite evolved to the point where my heart is perfectly untroubled. There are plenty of days when I battle fear, doubt, and sadness.
What I find interesting, however, is that Jesus doesn’t say, “Suck it up! Mind over matter!” He says don’t let your hearts be troubled. There are times when we are discouraged, but we can reach out to God or one another to break the momentum of the thoughts that threaten our faith and serenity. We may not have control over the fears or doubts that arise in our minds but we don’t have to let them to move in for extended visits.
I have found it helpful to picture a huge “Re-Set” Button in my mind’s eye. I don’t for a minute think that I won’t be subject to the kinds of troubling thoughts or feelings that are part of the human condition, but with the help of God and God’s many gifts I can re-set again, and again, and again, as many times as I need to.
Today is Trinity Sunday. I don’t fancy myself enough of a theologian or mathematician to be able to accurately convey what the 4th century church fathers were talking about in their doctrine of the Trinity. What has worked best for me is understanding the Trinity in terms of relationship.
Theologians tell us that God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, is the model of a loving, interdependent community. We’ve all been blessed with community. Oh sure, we’ve all been let down by people along the way, but more importantly we’ve been taught by people, mentored by people, and carried by people when we were too weary to walk the paths before us.
The gift of the Holy Spirit, whose presence we celebrate in this season of Pentecost, is that we are community for one another, in this congregation and throughout the world. In that gift of community we can take turns giving and receiving, healing and being healed. And this Spirit who forever lives in community with God and Jesus, will continue to remind us as we reach out to a world in need, that the gift of peace is ours for the claiming. “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.”