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Rick Morley

The peace that passes understanding

The Peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his son Jesus Christ Our Lord—and the blessing of God Almighty: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you always.

As a priest, I say these words at the close of almost every worship service I lead. The first part of it is a paraphrase of Philippians 4:7. The second part is a priestly blessing in the name of the Triune God.

I’ve been pronouncing this blessing for almost twenty years now. I’ve heard these words, or similar words, pronounced for far longer.

The peace of God which passes all understanding…

What kind of peace is that?

For most of my life I’ve thought that this kind of peace is the peace where all conflict would stop. Where all wars would cease, all political fights would end, all family drama would fade away, and everything would be super-duper chill.

But, I’m beginning to see this blessing, this verse from Paul, as something far different.

If the peace that passes all understanding is merely the absence of outward conflict, what does that do with all the injustices and evil in the world except anesthetize any resistance? What does that do except ensure that those who live under the cloud of injustice remain there in their suffering?

We’ve all lived through moments at home, work, school, etc, that resemble hostage situations more than anything else. Where one person, or one faction of people are the sort where you have to walk around on eggshells—where every second of every day is a game of don’t rock the boat—where the least little thing that goes wrong ends up being an emotional explosion of anger and rage. If you end up making it through a day with no outbreak of anger, that might seem like a victory of peace to an outsider. But, to everyone living in the system who has had clenched jaws, raised blood pressure, and has tipped-toed around every subject brought up, it has absolutely NOT been peaceful in the least. Under the surface it’s a rip current of fear and trembling.

We do not need this kind of peace that masquerades as appeasement and kindliness but which enables all manner of sordidness and affliction to visit themselves on the vulnerable and the despondent.

No. And, I don’t think God needs this kind of peace either. This isn’t the kind of peace that passes understanding—no, this is the kind of “peace” that the poor and downtrodden are all too familiar with. This is the kind of peace that merely wallpapers over evil. This is the kind of peace that makes deals with the devil which allows for some short-term ceasefire, but enables a long-term misery upon those who have known far too much misery already.

No. This is no peace.

The peace which passes understanding, if it’s truly God’s peace has to be a peace which upends injustice and oppression.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

These words of Jesus have vexed preachers for centuries. We’ve sung too many Christmas carols extolling Jesus as the “prince of peace” to then turn around and claim that Jesus isn’t bringing peace after all. (Usually sermons end up being something like, “This thing that Jesus said… he didn’t actually mean that…)

But, what if the problem here isn’t Jesus? What if the problem is our understanding of peace?

What if peace IS the sword – the sword which pierces everything which needs to be overturned in order for real peace to actually come?

turning

He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Luke 3:3

When the cat jumps on me at 1AM and wakes me up, I sometimes have a hard time falling back to sleep again. Not because I had too much coffee the day before, but because all of a sudden my brain wants to attend to the list of things that I did that I shouldn’t have done. Or the list of things that I should have done, but didn’t do. Or the things that I said that came out all wrong.

Sometimes those things are from the day before, but other times the list appears from my decades gone by.

I lay there in some semi-conscious dream state and wallow in feelings of guilt, shame, and anger with myself.

It’s not a particularly popular thing to admit that you’re wrong, or have done something wrong. The all-too-typical responses are to minimize (“I’m sorry you feel that way.”), to deflect (“Well, what about when you did the same thing?”), or to lie (“I don’t know what you’re talking about, I never did that.”)

And then there’s the ways we try and hide our faults and problems from ourselves. But, the problem is that we can’t hide from ourselves. The truth will end up surfacing on some restless night long before the sun rises.

The baptism that John the Baptist proclaimed was a baptism of repentance. That word has gotten an ugly reputation, as if we think that feeling shame and guilt is a prerequisite. But, that’s not what repentance is. Repentance has nothing to do with lying in bed obsessing over things done and gone.

Repentance is about changing how we live in response to how we’ve lived. It’s a turning away from things that keep us from God, or that keep us from being the kind of people who God wants us to be (and, quite frankly, how WE want us to be), and a turning towards a new way of living that is more honest, kind, loving, and present.

Repentance is about turning toward the things that are beautiful—the things that show up in our daydreams, not our nightmares.

This is the baptism that John proclaims. And it’s the kind of living—the kind of turning—that makes for a life that is well lived with God by our side.

And where we sleep soundly all though the night.

the after party: Advent 1C

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Luke 21:25

In the year 64AD, Rome burned to the ground. This is the famous fire that we’ve all heard that Emperor Nero “fiddled” through. The Christians were blamed for the fire, and a most awful persecution broke out because of that.

In the year 70AD The Army of the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem. It was so brutal and complete that the scars can still be seen in the city to this very day. Besides the destruction of buildings, they ended up crucifying so many people that it is said that they ran out of wood.

For someone living through those horrific events—especially someone who was Jewish or Christian—it must have felt like the whole world was ending.

Now, Luke is writing a good 15-20 years later. The fires had cooled. The horrors were nothing but memories. People had moved on with their lives. In fact, from what we can gather, Luke was writing for a community of Jesus-Followers who were in a good place.

Of course, this didn’t mean that the memories had faded all that much. How many times have we said to ourselves, “I can’t believe it’s only be 10 years since…”

The images would still be burned into their minds. The sounds. The smells. The sensation of fear that emanated from every cell in their bodies. They had moved on, but how much can you really ever move on from something like that?

These are the events that Jesus is referencing in the 21st chapter of Luke. Of course, when Jesus was speaking, it was decades before those events had occurred. Luke was writing these words down decades after the events.

One would be forgiven if they thought of such horrific things as evidence that God had forgotten them, or was absent. But Luke’s Jesus tells us: “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near…When you see these things taking place, you know that the Kingdom of God is near.”

That almost sounds ridiculous. It’s practically crazy-talk.

When our whole world is going topsy-turvy how can we ever find evidence of redemption? How can we ever find the Kingdom in the ashes of destruction?

I don’t know. I really don’t.

Though it must be in the same way that the first are last and the last are first. The same way that the greatest among us are the servants. The same way that a death on a cross can culminate in the victory of an empty tomb.

It doesn’t make sense. Unless we have eyes of faith.

Christ the King

Pope Pius XI inaugurated Christ the King Sunday in 1925, when the authority of the church was evidently waning in the world. Of course nearly ninety years later, the “authority” of the church—or even just the “place” of the church—in the world is almost laughable. We are all but irrelevant in the power structures of the community of nations.

Whatever the original intent and motive of Christ the King Sunday, one can easily see “Christendom” making one last effort—only last death-throw gasp—to stem the tide, and regain a position of power and influence in the world.

But, it does do one well to consider the kind of kingship that Jesus represents.Jesus of Nazareth didn’t reign from a position of political and military strength.

I don’t like to get to Christmas until…you know…it’s actually Christmas. But, for several weeks now the lectionary has already begun it’s move to the coming of Christ (second coming, then first coming), and it’s useful to look in the direction that we’re going. And, Jesus, when he came in Bethlehem, came as a vulnerable infant. Not a conquering warrior. No throne. No crown. No sword. No scepter.

His trappings were swaddling cloths.

In fact, the incarnational movement of God—especially in the Gospel of John—is in the giving of Christ to the world. (For God so loved the world that he have His only son…) God handed His only son over to us. An act of great vulnerability.

And, of course, the culmination of this giving of Jesus to us, was us crucifying him. Naked. Beaten. Broken. Laughed at. Spit upon. Nailed. Hastily laid in a borrowed tomb.

Jesus was given in an act of vulnerability, he came vulnerable in manger-mild, and he was killed in the great act of willing vulnerability.

This is important, and inextricably bound to his Kingship. This is the kind of king that Jesus was, and is.

We especially see it in this week’s Gospel lesson, where Jesus responds to Pilate:

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.

He doesn’t say it explicitly, but implicitly he’s saying:

My kingdom is not from this world, and therefore no one is fighting for me. Because in my kingdom we don’t do that.

And, even in the consummate vision of John in Revelation—even in victory over the forces of darkness and evil, Christ is still the lamb at the center of the throne. Still the sacrificial lamb.

What does this mean for us, the followers of this vulnerable king? It means that we’re to follow in His footsteps, embracing rather than denying, our position of vulnerability.

And, let’s face it, we are powerless. Powerless to stop the surge of a hurricane. Powerless in the face of devastating fires which consume entire communities. Powerless to prop up failing economies. Powerless to raise perfect children, have the perfect home, attain the perfect job, and minister in the perfect church. Powerless to impress all the neighbors, and assuage our own guilt and shame. Powerless to change the past—things done to us, and things done by us. Powerless to stop death from taking us or our loved ones to the grave.

And boy does that tick us off.

Nothing makes us angrier than being powerless. Nothing makes us want to point the finger of blame like being found out to be powerless. Nothing makes us sink into a pool of despair and denial than powerlessness. Nothing makes us want to launch a missile and start a war like the reality of our vulnerability staring us in the face.

But, if we can follow our Great King, who embraced powerlessness in the manger and on the cross…great things can happen.

No army has ever defeated the power of darkness and evil. No bomb has ever staved the power of death.

But…a bloody, beaten, and naked Christ did.

And, he’s our King.

something wonderful comes yet

Remember that Mark’s Gospel was written during a time of great trial and misery. Jerusalem had been destroyed. Rome had burned, and the Christians had been blamed for it. Thousands upon thousands of Jews and Christians had been forced to leave their homes and flee as refugees to other places that were out of Rome’s grip—for now.

For them, it must have seemed as if the whole world was coming to an end. The whole foundation of their lives were shifting on the sands of persecution, murder, and fear.

So, in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus starts talking about the destruction of the Temple and “nation rising against nation,” this would have been no surprise for Mark’s first readers. These things that had been talked about 40 years ago by Jesus had come to fruition in their lifetimes.

Even after Jesus’ death, his resurrection, and his ascension into Heaven—even after the event of Pentecost—there was a sense in the earliest church that the story wasn’t yet over. There was more to come. And, like the resurrection had to be preceded by the crucifixion, this new thing that God was about to do would also be preceded by something terrible and awful.

I think this would have been some consolation to those Christians living in Mark’s day who were fleeing Rome’s reach as they watched their whole world burn. I think it would have reminded them that all these terrible things weren’t anyone’s fault—especially not their fault. They were being reminded that even in the face of horrible, horrendous things, God is still present with them.

They had a sense that something was on the horizon—and that this something was going to be wonderful. When we look east, we see the same horizon they saw. And, something wonderful still comes yet.

broken

Back in the opening chapters of the Bible there’s a rift. Abraham and his nephew lot have to go their separate ways. There was major tension between them and the families who supported each of them. The land wasn’t rich enough to support both sets of flocks and herds.

So, the family split up. Lot when on to Gomorrah (in the end, a “bad” decision…) and his uncle Abraham went on to the Oaks at Mamre.

Abraham is, obviously, the great patriarch of the nation of Israel. His nephew Lot became the patriarch of another nation: the nation of Moab. For the better part of a thousand years these two nations carried on the same rivalry that their patriarchs began centuries before.

And then… some 1,500 years after Abraham… an Israelite woman named Naomi fled to Moab to escape a famine in her land. She took her two sons with her, and they each found a Moabite woman to marry. Sadly, both of her sons ended up dying, and Naomi was left in a foreign land along with her two new daughters-in-law.

When the famine was over, Naomi decided to head back home. She told her two daughters-in-law that she wished them well, and that she hoped they met new men to marry, and that they had a great life. One of those daughters, Orpah, took her up on that and stayed in Moab. The other daughter turned to her and said,

Wither thou goest, I will go.

Her name was Ruth. And she returned to Israel with her mother-in-law Naomi. There, Ruth met an Israelite man named Boaz. They fell in love. 

They got married.

With this marriage a 1,500 year rift between the family is healed. Two nations return and become one nation, one family again.

And, these two have a son, named Obed. Obed has a son, named Jesse. And Jesse has a son.

Named David. He becomes the first king of Israel, and hundreds of years later from this family tree comes a child born in Bethlehem.

See what happens when our lives are bent towards reconciliation and healing? See what happens when we come together and put away the silly fights of old?

Going home

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

This Sunday is All Saint’s Sunday—the day on the church calendar when we remember that we are part of something bigger than what we can see, or even fathom. One of the readings that is assigned to this day is from the latter part of the Book of Revelation in which we get a glimpse into the heart of God.

We all know that Jesus, God incarnate, came to live among us. That’s remarkable as it is. But, here in this consummate vision in Revelation we find God who is still searching out his home among us.

Alone among the religions of the world, we proclaim a God who isn’t content with remaining high in the vaults of heaven—no, our God wants to be with us. Our God wants to make a home among us. Our God wants to be among us, and wipe any tear that may fall from our eye.

To call this “extraordinary” is a ridiculous understatement. 

And, it begs an uncomfortable question: Do we want to be with God as much as God wants to be with us?

As uncomfortable as this is, the discomfort reveals perhaps the most splendid, beautiful facet of God: God’s vulnerability. God wanting to be among us—and willing to open himself up to our rejection, is God’s pledge of risk—the sign of true love, if ever there was one.

God is willing to come to us, and wait. God is willing to open himself up to being shunned and rejected by us.

But, oh, if we but return the favor, no tear will fall from our eyes. Ever.

the end of Job

As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the Book of Job is a bit of an enigma – or maybe we could say that it renders life as an enigma. Part of what makes us human is the quest for meaning. Whenever we pick up on something being meaningless, it’s like we short circuit. “It must have meaning somewhere,” sounds the voice deep inside us.

This is especially true when it comes to suffering, death, and loss – and this is exactly where the Book of Job takes us in this search for meaning. But, in the end, if all we are looking for is meaning, at the end of the book we’re left waiting at the altar by ourselves.

The end of the book does have some resolution, though. Job gets back everything he lost, and then some. He even gets children. New children. Good looking children.

And here’s the thing… after forty-two chapters, we might be ready to accept that everyone lived happily-ever-after, and move on with our lives. But, look a little closer…

He lost all of his sons and daughters to horrific disasters. Would getting “new ones” be any consolation whatsoever?!

I mean, these new kids might be lovely. They might be smart, and humble, and easy on the eyes. They might have great temperaments, and truly admirable outlooks on life. He might have been able to develop very meaningful relationships with each of them. 

But, wouldn’t there be a hole in his heart for each and every one of the children who he lost? Wouldn’t he go to bed with tears in his eyes every night thinking of them, their smiles, their idiosyncrasies, and the joyous times they shared? Wouldn’t their names be written on his heart for the rest of his days?

And, in this light, we might take a second look at Job being compensated double for all the property he lost. I mean, yes, that’s lovely – and wouldn’t it be nice if this was the norm for all of us when we suffer some calamity. But, none of these newfound riches would erase the experience of that one horrible day. That sitting down in the ashes of his former life. The sinking feeling of loss, dread, confusion, anger, and helplessness.

That trauma can’t be healed by the magical appearance of new stuff. Trauma like that takes a lifetime to work through.

Scholars think that this ending was added much later to give the book a little resolution. And, if a “little resolution” is all your looking for, then that’s maybe all we get. But, all the questions that we came to the book to begin with are still bouncing around in our head, left wanting for answers.

And isn’t that the answer? We can try and plaster quick-and-easy solutions over our experiences of pain and loss, but the pain and loss is still there. And so is God.

In this sense, perhaps Job’s initial words to his wife on the Terrible Day are the real point of the book after all: The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.

Out of the Whirlwind

Job lost everything. Everything.

Then, several of his friends came by to tell him that this terrible set of things which happened to him was basically his fault. After protesting for a while, Job essentially gets angry, and blames God for his plight. He comes to the conclusion that God has wronged him, and that God must answer for his crimes.

That didn’t go over as well as Job originally thought though.

God appears and opens up a can on Job:

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

“Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”

“On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

As the kids say today: “Oooof.”

God doesn’t answer Job’s specific questions. God simply shows Job how small Job is in relation to God and the grandeur of creation. In this verbal smack down, God doesn’t just recall to Job the things he know, or even just the things that he doesn’t know. God asks Job about the things that he didn’t even know that he didn’t know.

The Book of Job is, of course, the book in the Bible which so clearly asks the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? By now, you’ve probably realized that there really isn’t an answer to this question in the book, or in life itself. We just don’t know.

But, the end of Job does give one little answer: Suffering isn’t the only thing we don’t know about. We could fill a few books with our wisdom, but there are endless libraries full of wisdom that we aren’t even able to fathom. 

It’s not just the question of suffering that we don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know.

I’m aware that that’s not the most comfortable answer—especially today, when we expect to be able to answer just about anything in a few seconds of googling it. Not knowing things makes us incredibly uncomfortable. It makes us feel vulnerable and small.

And, that’s where God and Job end up. Job isn’t yelled at for expressing his feelings to God. Job is simply reminded of who he is in the grand scheme of things.

The amazing part of this scene though… the One who DOES know who laid the foundations of the earth cares enough about Job to show up and let him know it.

We might not know much, but we can hang our hat on that.

Job lawyering up

I know that my redeemer lives,
And that at the last he will stand upon the earth

Job 19:25

These words from the Book of Job are read at the beginning of almost every Episcopal funeral.

There’s a pretty famous, and quite wonderful, musical rendition of this text which is included in Handel’s /Messiah/. You can watch a YouTube clip of that below:

On its own, the text seems to be pointing to Jesus, who is our Redeemer. Knowing that our redeemer “lives” appears to be a call of victory that would make sense on any Easter morning.

But, Job, when he utters these words, is in no way thinking about Jesus here. He has a whole different sort of “redeemer” in mind.

In fact, when Job extols the virtues of his redeemer, he’s actually talking about someone who resembles a lawyer who will come and help him take God to court. He wants to sue God because he has come to believe that God has wronged him—he believes that God wrongly allowed all the horrible things that happened to Job. He’s so convinced of his own innocence, and God’s guilt, that he believe that any impartial judge would see it this way.

All he needs is a good lawyer.

In this week’s lesson from Job 23 we find these words:

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Isn’t this amazing?! Job the upright and just man, who God brags about to all the heavenly host, ends up getting so upset with God that he says /outloud/ that he thinks a good lawyer and a good judge could successfully bring suit against God.

And, not only does Job think this, and say this—but then his words get memorialized as scripture.

Now, next week we’ll hear God’s response to Job. It’s not pretty. At the end of it Job is put back in his place with his knees knocking.

But, also in the end, Job is found to honestly express to God what was on his heart. His relationship with God meant enough to him that he felt it appropriate to be honest with God. And, like when we spout off to a friend or spouse, Job had to go back and apologize.

But, I’m convinced that God was at least pleased with one thing: Job’s relationship with God meant enough to him that he was willing to express his displeasure.

What’s on your mind with God today?