1/16/2011 -- Emily Guthrie -- Second Sunday after Epiphany

posted Jan 23, 2011, 3:27 PM by Unknown user   [ updated Feb 6, 2011, 3:28 PM by Terry Brady ]

Passing the Peace in a Violent World

The Rev. Emily Guthrie, Assistant Rector, St. Margaret's Episcopal Church

January 16, 2011, Epiphany II, Martin Luther King, Jr. Remembered


Let us pray:

God of my integrity, in whom knowledge of truth and passion for justice are one; 

Our hearts were sentimental and you cleansed them with your rigorous mercy;

Our thoughts were rigid and you engaged them with your compassionate mind.

Heal our fragmented souls; teach our naivety; confront our laziness;

And inflame our longing to know your loving discernment,

So that we can live out your active love, and be bearers of your peace,

through Jesus Christ. Amen.[1]


Passing the peace is truly one of my favorite parts of the service.  There are elaborate explanations of the need for and proper expression of the peace. Some believe introducing yourself is right out: too much info, not enough solemnity. Some believe you should greet all in the church; some only those within arms reach. For a while in the 70s, kissing your neighbor on the lips was the acceptable form of passing the peace in some congregations. That has gone out of favor, but certainly hugging remains an option for some. The handshake is always appropriate – although during the recent swine flu scare that too may have prompted calls for hand sanitizer all around!  I’ve been known to Namaste from a distance when running across the nave would be unseemly. Whatever your custom, at its heart we are practicing seeing each other through the eyes of peace. We honor the image of God in one another.

The ritual echoes the early Christian practice of seeking reconciliation with one another before approaching the altar of God. We are at least symbolically if not actually instruments of God’s peace for one another.  I never thought it was radical, but simply living through these past weeks, while sitting with the words of Jesus and Martin, beings instruments of peace -  much less non-violent instruments for peace -  seems down right alien.

But indeed, we are gathered this morning to practice and deepen our ability to follow in the way of the God of light, the Prince of Peace, and to recall the memory of one Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who as a follower of the Prince of Peace, worked for the liberation of all God’s children, seeking justice with non-violent, peaceful means.   

What happened to non-violence? Have you noticed that we don’t talk about it much anymore? I suppose that isn’t so odd really, as we are in the midst of fighting two wars, and constantly aware of threat levels, security procedures, and the need to report suspicious activity.  We are overwhelmed with the reality of violence in our lives and as a people we live in a virtual constant state of alert, especially in Washington, DC. Some would arm themselves and the country to the greatest extent possible in order to protect themselves and others from any threat.  There is of course great disagreement about how we respond to violence, how we prevent violence, the extent to which we use violence as a means to solve our conflicts. And it is indeed a deeply complex subject. Yet the voices of non-violence are often missing entirely from our public, if not private, deliberations and decisions. Now if I claim to follow Jesus, what of the ways of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, will I bring to this question, much less my life?

In this morning’s Gospel, the two disciples start to follow Jesus, and Jesus turns around and says “What are you looking for?” And they said “Rabbi – where do you live?” They were curious about his life…They wanted to know he lived. What did he do with his days? Was he amassing an army to take over as expected?  Jesus replies simply: “Come and see… .“  And so, we too go to see. How did Jesus react and respond to violence, even violence perpetrated directly against him and his followers? As we know so clearly from the stories in the gospels, he responded with humility, with dignity, with open hands and not fists or swords. He responded by speaking truth, asking questions, going to Jerusalem, to the heart of the potential violence, rather than hiding or returning to the more peaceful hills of Judea. He confronted those who hated and sought to kill him, not with violence or military might but with love, mercy and truth.

This Lamb of God cautioned the disciples and cautions us still to love our enemies, love and do not hate them. Urging us to consider anew that “Blessed are those who make peace for they shall be called children of God.”[2] In our deliberations about methods of pursuing peace and justice, we must remember that we walk in the way of a pacifist.  This Jesus claims to offer a way of love and mercy that is more powerful than the way of retribution and revenge. Do we believe that?

Imagine if you will a different scenario: Jesus has gathered many followers: the poor, afflicted, fishermen, women, tax collectors, teachers, working people, children. When he finds out that his teachings have disturbed the religious leaders, he first sends a messenger, then a legal warning, then an armed militia to help them to understand in no uncertain terms that God is with his band of true believers and they were prepared to defend themselves at all cost. Then when the Roman guards come to arrest him, he incites his followers to rise up against the oppressors, telling them to take stones, knives, swords, kill any who would threaten their new King, and their new freedom.

Thankfully, that is not our story, although sometimes I wonder if we wouldn’t prefer it. Our story is a story of the one whom John the Baptist calls the Lamb of God, who faced the powers of the world with outstretched arms, and even when they killed him, forgave them.  The Prince of Peace indeed threatened the oppressors, but with the mysterious power of his presence, his authority, his disarming and merciful ways.

As followers of Jesus, we are reminded and called anew to be a people of peace. We can and do finesse that… We find ways to make sense of the compromises we make for the sake of what we might call just war, or a justified retaliation, but we must face the fact that ours is a faith that calls us to make peace, to weed out violence from our lives…as individuals and as a people. We who call ourselves Christians bear a heavy burden to see clearly the compromise we make when we take up arms whether literally and or in our hearts. And therefore when we are at war – in our families, in our cities, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and all around the world - we have fallen short of that high calling. As such, however justified we may or may not feel in our use of violence, we must face the reality that in the language of our faith, it is sin, for we all miss the mark of mercy and peace.

So how do we as people of faith respond to the very real dangers, risks, violence within us and around us?  How do we engage with those motivated by hate and ignorance? Can we even entertain the way of Jesus or are we just too cynical now? Are we afraid to stand up and claim that in spite of all the evidence, faith in the power of love will still be the only thing that stops ignorance and hate in its tracks?[3]

Martin Luther King Jr.’s faith implored him to speak and act as a non-violent prophet of justice, equality and peace even in the face of what he called the “triple threat of racism, militarism, and materialism.”[4] Today as we give thanks for his witness, leadership and life, we recognize that he gave us an extraordinary example of the power of non-violent leadership that came with the highest cost. We too must wrestle with the practical application of that unmistakable call to love our enemies and be peacemakers in our day, and to keep asking what it means for our individual and collective lives. Clearly we must recognize that we instinctively fight when threatened, and the bigger the threat, the stronger our instincts push for revenge and retribution. We must ask for the grace to overcome our hatred, to let our virtues of compassion and mercy rise, lest we become our enemy.

Let us pray for the courage not only to talk about peace and non-violence, but the grace to live lives of peace and non-violence. For we are called to pass the peace far beyond these pews: we are called to be instruments of peace in the streets and the world. For we too are called in our day to love our enemies…to go into the remote villages and cities in so many parts of the world where young men and women living in poverty, some of whom have been taught to despise us for our greed, often for our hatred and disrespect of Islam, for our domination in the world. Will we be able to greet them with a sign of God’s peace?  If we can, if we will, we shall overcome someday.

[1] Janet Morley, ed., All Desires Known, pg. x., “be bearers of your peace” is my addition. 

[2] Matthew 5:9

[3] Paraphrase of MLK, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction....The chain reaction of evil--hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars--must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” Strength to Love, 1963

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964