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Peace in Action

Message for April 19, 2020

Texts: Acts 2:24-28, Psalm 16:5-11 and John 20:19-22

Last week, I talked about the gift of peace on that first Easter Sunday evening as a gift that brings us mindful calm focused on the present moment, driving away fear and anxiety over the future and grief over the past. Today I want to talk about a different aspect of Easter peace.

This week our Wednesday Zoom Bible study group began a new study on the Psalms. In our first session, professor Denise Dombkowski Hopkins noted that the two primary metaphors that we find in the Psalms are those of refuge and pathway. It occurs to me that God as refuge would be an apt way of describing last week’s Easter sermon — and I noticed that our first two readings for this morning (the Acts passage is a rewording or quotation of the Psalm) both include the words “path” or “way,” more specifically the phrase path of life or way of life. Although there are also images of rest, not being shaken, finding a home in God, there is also this language about moving, walking on the path with God, taking action without stumbling because God is with us.

Indeed, even in the Upper Room on that first Easter Sunday, Jesus said “peace” to his disciples — but he also said, “As God sent me, so I am sending you.” They were not to stay in the Upper Room forever. The Holy Spirit was to comfort them and send their fear packing, but it was also to send them packing, giving them something to do with this newfound sense of peace in the face of death.

I am reminded of another Psalm — the one you probably know better than any other — Psalm 23 (and if you have a Bible handy I invite to you open to your favorite translation of Psalm 23 right now). You’ll see that it also presents an image of a follower on the move, with a Good Shepherd leading the way: the Lord leads me to “green pastures” and “still waters” and “revives my soul,” but also leads me on “paths of righteousness” that even take me “through the valley of the shadow of death,” and “in the presence of enemies;” but “I fear no evil,” because of God’s presence ever near.

This Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. During this pandemic, with a significant portion of the earth’s human population sheltering at home and not engaging in their usual activities, many have noticed a decrease in water and air pollution. A CNN article just this past Friday reports on the increasing clarity of water in the canals of Venice (supported by comparative photos released by the European space agency and citizen reports of seeing fish swimming in the waters usually made murky by sediment kicked up from constant boat traffic), while people in the Indian state of Punjab are able to see the Himalayas for the first time in decades, usually choked Chinese cities see blue skies, and similar observations are being made in the U.S. (I took this photo of San Francisco Bay while sailing with Albert on my day off this week).

Is it possible that one of the lessons of this COVID-19 crisis might be both a sober reflection on the impact of human activity on our earth, and a new resolve to join together and do what we can to more permanently reverse the trend of destruction to our environment? Might ‘walking on the paths of righteousness,” allowing God to “teach us the way of life,” being sent with the Spirit-breath of peace, give us courage to speak the hard truths and do the hard things that might make for a better life for all God’s children?

Other observers have lifted up the rise in domestic violence that has accompanied a forced and prolonged stay at home; the plight of refugees and the homeless who cannot take the protective measures the rest of us are able to do; the “digital divide” that leaves some children unable to continue their education, and many other ways that gross injustice is made all the more apparent by this crisis — at least for those who have the eyes to see.

Now, I know that we are all under an incredible amount of stress. I have even counseled some of you to limit your exposure to the news, because it is all too easy to get sucked into our screens.  While the Internet and related technology is neither inherently bad or good — it is neutral — there is something addictive about the glowing screen and the access to information at our fingertips. Our paths through our devices can lead us to green pastures of beauty and still waters of refreshment, greater connection with others and intellectual and even spiritual stimulation. But they can also lead us on a downward spiral into helplessness, depression and overwhelm.

What I hope you might do, with this gift of time that we are given behind closed doors, is choose just one subject that tugs at your heartstrings. Dedicate some time toward prayer and study, and take one action toward peace, toward shalom. Then check your energy level, assess whether this has lifted you or deepened you, before considering the next faithful step. 

I am struck by a powerful, buoyant phrase from our Acts and Psalms passages: “You won’t abandon me to the grave” — and I think of those who have been abandoned during this crisis, who have been left to fend for themselves. These matters are complicated, I know, and we can’t do everything. But we can do something. And we can trust in the God who has not abandoned us, to give us the courage to do what it is that we can do, to contribute what we can contribute, in the hope that the world that emerges in the new light of Easter will be a more just, more kind, more compassionate, more holy one.

A pastor friend of mine posted this quote on Facebook, by poet Sonya Renee Taylor:

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature. 

She is not the only one articulating this hope. But I believe there will be a a very loud voice — clamoring over the public airwaves, in advertising, and reverberating in our frightened heart — that will be calling for us to “get back to normal” as soon as possible — get back to spending, get back to consuming, get back to “looking out for #1” and looking the other way when injustice is done.

May you live in hope. May you trust that God will not abandon you to the grave. May you be filled with the Spirit, and know that you are sent to be a healer of what is broken and a maker of peace. Amen.