9/25/2011 sermon: The Peace of God

Location: Holy CrossEpiscopal Church, Dunn Loring, VA
Text: Philippians 2:1-13
15Pentecost, Proper 21, Year A

The Peace of God

Let’s imagine that Saint Paul came to Dunn Loring and opened a drug store. Perhaps this store would be right out here on Gallows Road. Perhaps Paul would call his store the Peace of God Pharmacy. After all, the Peace of God IS a potent restorer of physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The Peace of God works something like a drug by restoring and maintaining our health.

I began to speculate about just such an event—Saint Paul coming to Dunn Loring and opening a Peace of God drug store—when I remembered a sermon that Alyce McKenzie had shared in her book, Novel Preaching.[1] In that sermon Saint Paul opened a restaurant that served only one entrée, the “Peace of God.” I can’t see Paul as a chef, though, or such a restaurant playing out here in Dunn Loring the way it did in Alyce’s home town. Still, we take our inspirations however God gives them to us, so imagine Saint Paul’s Peace of God Pharmacy right here in Dunn Loring.

I can see Paul’s pharmacy now. Paul would have a whole lot of the “Peace of God” to give away, because Paul would not sell Peace of God. Paul would have enough Peace of God to give to each and every one of the eight-thousand-three-hundred-and-fifty-one residents of Dunn Loring. And Paul would have an infinite supply left over for the folks in Vienna, and Arlington, and Fairfax, and even Woodbridge and Washington, DC, who might also want the Peace of God. Yes, the Peace of God would be abundant and absolutely free. But perhaps Paul would sell the things that go with the Peace of God, the things that make the Peace of God active in our lives. I can see it now.

Can you see Paul’s pharmacy? It’s in a big building right out here on Gallows Road. Paul would have taken out a full-page ad in BOTH The Washington Post AND the Washington Times. “The Peace of God,” the ad would say, and “FREE” in a large-font headline, followed by the fine print, “Some activation required.” Well, not activation, exactly, but we can do things which limit the effectiveness of the Peace of God—much like the disbelief in Jesus in his hometown limited his ability to do works of power there. So I will talk about the Peace of God as if it requires “some activation.”

Now suppose—since we are imagining—that Paul has other cities to visit to distribute the Peace of God, so he hires you to be his Dunn Loring agent and to distribute the absolutely free Peace of God—and to sell as much of the activating agent as possible. The activating agent comes in three easy-to-use variations: compassion, sympathy, and generosity.

At this very moment it is the evening before the Peace of God Pharmacy is scheduled to open. You are at work, checking on everything: the incredibly abundant supply of the Peace of God, and the aisles and aisles of compassion, sympathy, and generosity. Every last detail has been tended to. You straighten a display when you hear a big commotion coming from outside the store. It sounds like voices, so you peek outside to check, and sure enough, there are a lot of people out there. Many of them have blankets or a sleeping bag, and they are arguing loudly, jostling for position, trying to be the first in line for tomorrow’s grand opening. Because things seem to be getting ugly, you decide to intervene. You grab a large supply of Peace of God and a handful of compassion, sympathy, and generosity, and step outside.

“What’s the problem?” you ask the crowd. But as the words come out of your mouth you realize that you know who these people are. “Donald Trump!” you exclaim before you can stop yourself. “Yes,” the famous entrepreneur preens, “I’m here for the free Peace of God, but I don’t need the activating agent. I myself can make the Peace of God work. But these other people are getting in my way.”

Before you can reply Lisa Nowak interrupts. Lisa was a senior Navy officer and astronaut who was so upset that her one-time boyfriend had begun dating someone else that she drove cross-country to pepper-spray her rival. Lisa, as it turns out, wants the Peace of God, also. “I don’t want these other people to have what I have,” she says, “they might use the Peace of God up.”

As you wonder whether Lisa understands that the Peace of God is absolutely free and available in unlimited supply, Aaron Titus begins to argue with Lisa. Perhaps you remember Aaron. He is a local man who got a robocall, an automated telephone call, from his son’s school at 4:30 one winter morning telling him what had long been evident the night before, that he could sleep in because school would be closed that day. Aaron was so pleased with the hour of the call that he hired a firm to make robocalls to each member of the school board the following morning at 4:30 AM. As Aaron verbally spews on Lisa you marvel at just how much vengeance Aaron seems to carry around with him. Vengeance seems to be heavier than compassion, sympathy, and generosity.

As you listen to the loudest voices in the gathered crowd, you discover that Charlie Sheen wants to activate the Peace of God with lack of control. Albert Haynesworth wants to activate the Peace of God with anger. And Alexander Reading wants to use perfectionism. Alexander was a top orthopedic surgeon in England until he committed a minor error during an operation and literally couldn’t live with himself as a result.

It turns out that no one in the crowd wants to buy the activating agent; they are just there for the Peace of God. You extricate yourself from the situation by telling the group that you will check with the owner and then get back to them. Then you go inside and dial 1-800-call-Paul.

The apostle Paul, of course, tells you that he isn’t the owner—Christ Jesus is. And Paul tells you to read the letter he wrote to the church in Philippi, the letter from which today’s Epistle reading is taken. The church in Philippi was one that Paul himself had founded. Paul loved the Philippians, and the Philippians loved him. Much like the people at Holy Cross, the people who were part of the church at Philippi were true Christians, generous in giving to others, and actively living lives as disciples of Christ-Jesus. And yet, news had come to Paul that some of the people in Philippi were fighting among each other.

Paul’s response was to write the people of Philippi a letter reminding them to activate the Peace of God in their dealings with each other. Paul said that the Philippians should do this for two reasons. First, he wanted his joy in them to be complete. But more importantly, Paul wanted the Philippians to activate the Peace of God in their lives to follow the example that Jesus has given us.

Paul reminded the Philippians that, being God-made-human, Jesus could have rightfully claimed an honored place in this world. Instead, Jesus “emptied himself” of his claim to power—the very thing he was tested about in his third temptation in the wilderness. Ridding himself of any claim to power, he “became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Paul said this much more eloquently, so eloquently scholars believe that in verses five through eleven Paul was quoting the very first creed of the early Christian church. These verses might even have been one of the earliest Christian hymns.

So what does Paul’s letter to his beloved and only slightly imperfect Philippians have to do with us today at Holy Cross? First, the Good News of Paul’s letter is as directly applicable to us today as it was to the Philippians in Paul’s day. The Peace of God, which as you will recall “passes all understanding,” is still totally free. The Peace of God is still activated by compassion, sympathy, and generosity, but instead of costing money, these Christ-like traits cost us only giving up our egotism, jealousy, vengeance, lack of control, anger, paranoia, perfectionism, and the like. We don’t even have to give up these traits by ourselves, because Jesus will help us if we ask him to. Jesus might even help us if we neglect to ask him, but the process usually takes longer.

“BUT WAIT,” you might be thinking, “WE are not the church in Philippi. WE are not fighting among ourselves. True! If we all are fighting among ourselves I assure you that you have hidden it very well. Good on you; the mind of Christ must be among the people in this parish.

I wonder, though, what have we done to give our unlimited supply of the Peace of God away? We have ample compassion, we have amply sympathy, and we have ample generosity. Are we hoarding these things for use only within these walls? We spring into action whenever a stranger crosses our threshold and we share our compassion, sympathy, and generosity through our outreach ministries. But what do we do to let the eight-thousand-three-hundred-and-fifty-one residents of Dunn Loring know why we do these ministries, and that Holy Cross is a Peace of God storehouse, a Peace of God depot right here on Gallows Road. Right here in their midst?

[1] McKenzie, Alyce M. Novel Preaching: Tips from Top Writers on Crafting Creative Sermons. 1st ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

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