Following God in an Unstable World: Sermon #2
Following God in an Unstable World – Sermon #2: As Long As It Depends On You
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Jan 17, 2016 • Nigel Berry, Youth Ministry Director
We are in our second week today of a new sermon series that we’ve labeled “Following God in an Unstable World”. Pastor Donnell got us off the ground last week in his reflections on 2015, most notably, a mass shooting which occurred at a church in Charleston. On many levels, 2015 was a difficult year. I found myself wrestling an incredible amount as I was drawn into deeper engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, with national conversations on guns, and global injustices which included the Ebola breakout at the beginning of the year, most notably in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the Syrian civil war which is almost fully into its 5th year, and high casualty bombings in Paris, Turkey, and Lebanon.
I’m not certain that I’ve spent a year in my life with so much of my thoughts, emotions, tears, and energies preoccupied with people and events that fall beyond my daily circles. I think that, initially, I assumed or hoped that most of my year’s hardships would be wrapped up in parenting our second child who joined us on my birthday in 2014. But I discovered to my surprise that parenthood confronted a lot of my ideologies and, more times than not, it left me feeling weaker, embarrassed, and more uncertain in light of this world’s instability. I found that the weight of my heart sunk into the crib, adding a new lens to my processing.
So in light of all this reality, all this “stuff” that I’ve been working through, having a conversation this morning about “Peace” seems potentially useful to help address some pretty serious questions about my life. And perhaps yours as well?
Make Me Care (Why is this worth the effort?)
One of my assurances in this last year has been the staggering sense that I’m not alone. I’m not the only person who has been wrestling with this. It has burdened a lot of us together to various degrees and I think that, when evil collides with our otherwise harmonious existence, it jars us.
We all experience disruption to peace. Whether that disruption is on a small scale, a global scale, or even a national one - it leaves us all with this feeling of “Yuck!” And we want to escape it. This isn’t anything new. People have been searching for peace for as long as people have walked this earth.
At its core, I think this is one of the most beautiful things about humanity. The fact that we can get to a point and say, “This is ridiculous and something needs to change” is AWESOME. Nothing else can do that.
It would be less remarkable, for example, if deer suddenly rose up, marched rack-in-rack out of the woods and demanded that we stop hitting them with our cars. Enough is enough! Man, I’d march with em’! Car repairs are expensive enough as it is…
And so this morning, I’m going to establish a baseline for our conversation. This is something that, irregardless of how different your 2015 may have been from mine, I think we can all agree on. And simply stated, that baseline would read, “I. Want. Peace”.
And I think that’s an admirable goal for any of us. And I think that our wiring to desire peace, to desire good must not only in some way tune us closer to the heart of God but also serves as an invitation to reflect His very image. So, to justify that statement, we need to explore this “God of Peace” idea. What does that even mean?!
We know that Christianity isn’t exclusive in this offering of peace. To be completely honest, when I close my eyes and try to picture peace, the first image that comes to my mind is a picture of a small Buddha statue that my childhood friend had in her house. She wasn’t Buddhist but I think the image of a chubby man laughing while holding a bowl of fruit made her happy. I suppose it makes me kind of happy too…
We’ve tried to bend peace into our futures through a series of approaches. When we feel disrupted, when we feel threatened, our instincts tend to take over. And we recognize those responses as commonly being Fight, Flight, Freezing.
And these approaches are repeated all of the time without any lasting result. We recognize that peace, in the fighting framework, dominates most nation’s approaches to conflict. We can make peace with a sword is the general idea and it was as powerful as an ideal in Jesus’ time as it was in ours. The Pax Romanaof Rome was the key to global peace, as toted by those with the biggest global guns. And the concept for peace was simple - play by our rules and we’ll get along fine. Disrupt the “peace”, and you’ll suffer for it. Now, this is fine policy approach if we’re asked to adapt to another person’s house rules for playing Phase 10 or Uno. However, in a world of conquest, this was, and still is, a painful burden to place on those without power, voices, or basic equalities to share with their fellow man.
Flight is a popular one too. Things get bad and so go! Leave! And while that certainly dissolves many threats, it creates new ones and leaves previous systems of oppression in operation, passing the burden onto others to bear.
Freezing is also common. We might think of our freeze response as one of disengagement. It offers the hope that, if I just wait this out, it will be resolved. Things will work themselves out. I just have to persevere until what’s done is done. Then things will be ok.
Whenever “then” is…
And what complicates this is that most of us have our preferences and convictions about which approach works best. “If they would just fight back and kick out the oppressors, this whole conflict would be over!”, some say. But you must destroy the life of another. “If they would just leave, they would be fine!” others declare. But sometimes leaving means you have to put a lifejacket, that does not float, around the chest of your 3 year old and hope for the best. Finally, staying put is the best option. “Don’t run from your problems but know your place!” is the echo of this approach. But it is difficult to wait when the next rocket could strike your bedroom on any given morning.
But perhaps that is too abstract, too foreign of a situation. So let’s substitute the fight for the court room, with oppressive fees and scheduling that doesn’t work with your job benefits or your child’s needs. Or instead of the court, let’s move the war zone internally - pitting our mind against our body because our body doesn’t look or work right. Or perhaps we berate our intelligence, our value, our worth in hopes that something special about us gets revealed through seasons of self-attacks.
Perhaps running away means a literal moving away. No friends, no family, no support system. Flight can be a sentence for loneliness. Or, if you’re a particularly friendly person who connects well in new situations, maybe its a nagging feeling that nobody really knows you. You don’t stick around long enough to experience intimacy. Perhaps you’re afraid that people will know the real you and its a person that you’re afraid of? Or maybe others always seem to let you down, so you cut yourself off before they get the chance?
And freezing feels just as futile. The resolutions seldom seem to come or, when they do, they’re rarely the picture of peace that we’d anticipated. It’s the moment when the relationships collapse for lack of attention, or the boss didn’t get over their concerns about your performance, or the debt collectors never stop leaving voicemails on the only thing you’ve been able to pay for on time.
Is this striking a chord with anyone?
This is nothing new under the sun. We try the same things over and over and over again and we’re still an unstable world, longing for peace and crying out for mercy from others and from our selves, and from the very ground which threatens to swallow us, crush us, or poison our drinking water.
These things weigh heavy on us because we know, deep in our cores, that such things are not right. And at this juncture we might be asking ourselves, what do YOU have to say about this, God?! Where are you?! Do you have a plan to change this or is my only hope in an afterlife?
The prophet Isaiah offered a picture of this hope to God’s people. In a similar way, he describes the dissatisfaction of those who pursue conventional wisdoms of the day, primarily mediums and spiritualists and warns them of their folly:
Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn. Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God. Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom, and they will be thrust into utter darkness. - Isaiah 8:20-22
Can I just say that last line sums up SO MANY of my emotions? Looking towards the earth, I see so much distress and darkness and gloom - and it threatens to pull me in. But his next line starts with the word, NEVERTHELESS. I could not have hoped for a more beautiful transition. Isaiah continues:
Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
Quick note - the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali were the two northernmost tribes of Israel and were the first ones to be overcome by the Assyrians and exiled from their lands. So… saying they were “humbled” was kind of an understatement.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting and this is a part of the Bible that might sound more familiar to you, especially in proximity to the Christmas season. The big reveal of God looks like this:
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
Ok. So now I’m going to offer you a toss here. Who was Isaiah referring to?
- Pastor Donnell
- The late David Bowie
- The most serene Augustus, crowned by God, great and pacific emperor, governing the Roman Empire
Ok. If you skipped youth group a lot as a kid, the answer is Jesus. This is youth group 101 people. The answer is almost always Jesus. How do you know I’m valuable? Jesus. Where do I turn when I’m in trouble? Jesus. Why can’t I punch that kid in the face? Jesus. Why can’t I have sex with her? Because her dad will pick up a tree and kill you.
It’s not completely false…
Getting back on track, Isaiah’s prophetic promise paints a picture of hope, of freedom, of goodness that might, just might offer us a better option. So what could that option look like? If Jesus is somehow central to our experience of peace, what’s his role?
Take Me With You (Jesus invites us into the mission)
Central to the theologies of the Jews was an understanding of the Hebrew word, shalom.
While used in common vernacular such as our own word, “peace”, there was also another side, a deeper side to shalom. You see, the roots of the word are tied to an idea of wholeness, of being complete. And this is the overarching hope of peace - that we might experience wholeness in our lives. Certainly the pursuit of shalom has obvious implications towards how we might consider war and violence, but it also has implications for how you and I might experience
Security, blessing, harmony, and serenity.
John is the disciple who most notably captures Jesus’ conversations surrounding peace. And we we see that he offers us some curious observations.
John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”
We get a curious picture here of a divided approach to peach offerings. Jesus suggest that the peace he gives us is different from what the world offers us. The gospel of John offers us clues that the peace of Jesus is one that sterilizes troubled hearts and drives away fear.
John will expand on this in a pastoral commentary in the later book of 1 John, writing that,
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. 1 John 4:18
You see, the opportunity to create, to share, and to ultimately experience the peace of God is fully dependent our our willingness to love. And this becomes our invitation. This becomes our escape from the world’s primal responses of fighting, running away, or disengaging.
Be Intentional (What are we driving towards?)
But loving our way to peace is difficult. And it seems more times than not that when we talk about peace, we’re looking for a solution that insulates us from the true cost of peacemaking. And so if you’re wishing upon a shooting star right now that peace is going to come easy, Jesus is going to pop that bubble. As Jesus is sending out his disciples, he warns them of the cost saying:
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth.
I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
So wait - how is our Prince of Peace also our prince of not-peace?! Well, again, it might depend on what kind of peace we’re willing to pursue.
We want instant fixes. And Jesus’ approach to peace sounds really inconvenient. And risky. There’s no guarantee that we can “love our way to peace” - especially when I can find 1000 things to place more confidence in than the peach policies of God’s Kingdom. For example, when I was in middle school, I called the Little Debbie snack cakes customer service hotline from our school’s public telephone (yeah, those were a thing) and I complained to their service department because I was convinced that they had shrunk the size of the crisped rice cereal in their Starcruch snack cakes
and I was bothered by this… this… betrayal! How dare they mess with my favorite snack cakes?! If you felt the feelings that I feel for Starcrunch snackcakes, you would understand too! The kind woman on the other end of the line who was almost certainly rolling her eyes kindly took my information, noted my complaint, and we concluded our conversation. A week later I had a check for 75 cents from the Little Debbie company with a written apology for my dissatisfaction and the invitation to enjoy my full refund or to take a second chance on their dime.
We complain. It gets fixed. That’s how the world is supposed to work, right? There should be a reward for being a squeaky wheel.
But peace necessitates work and Kingdom work is messy. This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we worship a God who took on flesh to be as messy as a God could possibly get by living among us. We’re talking emotions, we’re talking urges, we’re talking morning breath - humanity if you’re unfamiliar, is not a level of existence you want to be on if your intention is to live your life untouched or unblemished. Being human is tough. But Jesus assures us that our human trials do not exclude us from peace.
John 16:33 “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Let Me Like You (Where Is the Good News Here?)
If you’ve taken the BELONG class with me in the last year, you’ve likely heard me talk about the Enneagram personality assessment tool. It has become one of my favorite resources for personal growth in the last two years and I reflect on it regularly.
On the Enneagram’s 1-9 personality scale, I am a 9. And the nine, by way of typing, is considered to be the “peacemaker”. Perhaps this is why Donnell invited my voice into this particular theme but I wanted to take a moment to share with you some of the things that I’ve been discovering lately about peacemaking.
I had the great fortune of having Richard Rohr’s book on the enneagram recommended to me. If you’re not familiar with Rohr, he is a Franciscan friar, noted in various circles for his insightful writings and lectures. So I’m going to share with you my high and my low with regards to the enneagram. Here’s my high; and this description identifies deeply with my understanding of myself:
Nines are peacemakers. Their gift of accepting others without prejudice makes people feel understood and accepted. NINES can be unbiased arbitrators, because they can see and appreciate the positive aspects of both sides. Their sense fairness may make them committed fighters for peace and justice. They express harsh truths calmly and so matter-of-factly that its easy for others to "swallow" these truths. In the presence of a NINE, many people find it easy to come to rest themselves. In radical contrast to this, NINES often feel inwardly lashed by fears and restlessness, even when no-one notices.
Welcome to so much of my inner thoughts! Now, I like the label of “peacemaker” because as Rohr and other experts will tell you, Nines are really popular people. Who doesn’t want to hang out with a peacemaker?! My wiring is naturally predisposition to embrace and create peace.
God really hit me with the other side of this coin. The side that I don’t like to admit to myself let alone hundreds of people. My root sin is laziness. My pitfall is lethargy and comfort. And when I’m at my weakest, my inability to work through the necessary process of peace, jeopardize my hopes and at best I establish a false peace.
False peace is easy to work for. False peace keeps me comfortable. It’s the idea that I don’t have to object to a friend when they share a racist joke because raising the objection is uncomfortable. It’s the failure to speak into an injustice at the risk of being misunderstood or labeled because I can’t speak into every nuance or complexity of the matter with brief and absolute clarity. Peacemaking, working with the goal of my neighbor’s wholeness in mind, creates conflict with the world.
I recall coming home a few years ago and playing video games with some of my old friends and noticed that my friends’ gamertags, or their character’s names, were homophobic slurs. In that moment, at significant risk to our relationship, I declared that I couldn’t play with them while they projected these labels upon men and women that I had grown to love. Their reply of “What’s the big deal? You would have laughed at this just a few years ago.” summarized my tension. Yes. A few years ago, I would have laughed and never thought twice about it. But now, that label has a face, and a story, and a value defined by God as priceless. It was never funny - I just didn’t know it then.
That decision cost me a night of false peace. And it was uncomfortable. But I better understand today the risk of offering another person their wholeness. Jesus concluded his difficult discourse with this offering:
“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” '
The reward of peace is often a reward of its own making. To experience Jesus as the “Prince of Peace” and to benefit from such a title, we must be willing to put the work into peacemaking. Peacemaking is difficult work. It can necessitate an enormous amount of patience, risk, and long suffering. But the payoff is totally worth it.
The apostle Paul, who authored the majority of letters which compose our Bible’s New Testament, invites us into this mission. Donnell asked me to focus some of our conversation around Paul’s letter to the Romans and, if you’ve been teaching the Bible long enough, there’s usually a sense of dread that hits you whenever someone wants to engage in the book of Romans because it is so theologically dense that to spend a full year in Romans would still feel like an injustice to the text. So I’m going to look a snippet of the letter with you and apologize that we can’t unpack all of its glory this morning. Or decade. But I digress…
Paul encourages the church,
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” vs. Romans 12:18
We’re invited to pursue peace in the way that Jesus invites us. Loving others despite the risk is what it looks like. The invitation reminds me of a Henry Ford quote. When asked about the color options of his early vehicles for customers, Ford famously replied
“Customers can have a car in any color they want as long as it is black.” - Henry Ford
Perhaps Ford adopted the idea from God, where the Divine offers shalom with any approach as long as it is His.
“All the way to heaven is heave because He said, ‘I am the Way’.” - Catherine of Siena
Delight Me (What Does Peace Look Like?)
So how did our Prince of Peace model costly peacemaking?
Well, we see this played out through many of our Gospel stories:
- Heals a lame man on the Sabbath - pits him against the religious leaders
- Dispelling the mob about to kill a sinful woman - pits him against the religious leaders
- Speaks life into a Samaritan by a well - pits him against his culture
- Proclaims communal guilt for murdering prophets - Jesus is thrown out of his home town
- Splits the Kingdom of God from Rome - pits the government against him
- Saves a party with miraculous wine - labeled a drunkard & a friend of drunks
- Heals the daughter of a Roman soldier - pits Jesus against the zealots who want a violent revolution
And this is the irony behind why a Prince of Peace was executed by a form of capital punishment. Peacemaking stirs the pot.
But not every story ended terribly for Jesus. While many of the consequences that Jesus experienced in his pursuit of restoring shalom, there were pictures of real significance. A Pharisee named Nicodemus sneaks away in the middle of the night to learn from Jesus. Tax collectors repented and worked towards economic justice in their districts. Matthew and Zaccheus are both examples. To the chagrin of his disciples, people begin driving out demons and performing miracles in obedience to God, despite not being part of Jesus’ “inner circle”.
And these are the moments where we know peace has been worth the effort. Going back to my video game conflict, a few years later I spoke with one of those friends who remembered that night with clarity and thanked me for calling him out. He too experienced a change of heart and discerned that he was putting up barriers which prevented him from meaningfully loving his neighbor. THAT confession, that change was worth making the hard call and sitting with a night of uncomfortable tension.
Now we know not everyone will repent. And the guise of peacemaking is not a license for us to be jerks to one another. To be effective agents of peace in our world, it will necessitate practice, it will require boldness, and it will demand risk.
So here are a couple of practical tips to helps us on that journey:
1). One of the ways we might further explore peacemaking is to read the context surrounding Paul’s advice in Romans 12. It may not be surprising at this juncture to learn that our encouragement to live at peace with others is planted in a chapter about love. And as you read the text, consider some of Paul’s guidelines for being at peace with others. Some examples include don’t repay evil with evil, view everyone as equals, and maintain your humility.
2). Ask God to help you discern between cheap peace and costly peace and ask for boldness to pursue costly peace.
3). Create reminders of your commitment to being peaceful so that you may be accountable. A fun exercise may be to print a handsome photo of your least favorite politician and graffiti it with heart stickers and kind words. Hang it on your fridge to remind yourself of your commitment to see all people the way that God sees them.
4). Share your experience with your peacemaking with friends, family, or a life group.
5). Choose 3 ways to share shalom with others this week
For myself, I’ve recently shaved my mustache in line with the Mennonite tradition of peacekeeping. The Mennonite communities, or the Amish as they may be similarly understood, refuse to sport a mustache as an objection to militarization and the option of violence. The idea that it looks strange is the point - peacemaking is an unfamiliar posture for many people today. To strike a brother in the face would be the literal joining of your fist with your broken commitment to live as a person of peace. #MustacheFree2016