Travel with me way back in the halcyon days of 1995. Most people had never heard of the Internet and very few had it in their homes. Cell phones were still mostly seen in James Bond movies. Hackers were still Americans tinkering with computers in their basements rather than foreign armies. The state that I lived in for sixteen years – Mississippi – finally got around to ratifying the 13th amendment that abolished slavery. Terrorism was a domestic phenomenon carried out by Christians who called themselves patriots. I was newly married and newly ordained and working in my first call as a chaplain at a community college. I was invited to preach at a stately Congregational church on the Main Street of Canandaigua, New York. As is usually the case, the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches were across the street. The week before I was to preach, one of the most horrific events in American history happened. Timothy McVeigh and others detonated a truck bomb outside of the federal building in Oklahoma City. One-hundred and sixty-eight people were killed including nineteen children. As I struggled with what I could say from the pulpit on the following Sunday, I pondered the words of the gospel for the day. It is the same gospel that we will read on my last Sunday as the interim pastor of First Congregational:
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”
Three times in this passage Jesus says: Peace be with you. When I read these words, I was perplexed. Peace be with you? That’s the Word on a day like this? People were angry, bewildered, and disillusioned. The unthinkable had happened. I stood before them and the Word that I was given was a word of peace.
I believe that the Word that God shares with us today is also a word of peace. These are times of extremely high anxiety. Whether you are worried about people who look different and speak in indecipherable words or authoritarian strongmen who speak in unfathomable words, the future looks ominous. A lot of people struggle to meet the basic needs of their families, and many more are uncertain that they will be able to do so in the years to come. Two days a week, I’m a chaplain at Bates College. I’m not sure the anxiety level of the students could be any higher. It is not an exaggeration to say that I don’t know any students who have not had a panic attack in the last six months. The culture and expectations on campus ratchet up the anxiety. But that overly active petri dish is just a microcosm of forces in the larger society. We live in profoundly anxiety-provoking times.
As Christians, we are preparing to enter the most anxiety-ridden week of our cyclical spiritual path. We have walked with Jesus on the road to Calvary so many times before. It becomes rote. We rush through the words of the liturgy so we can get to the Easter candy. With so much death and destruction in the world, why do we have to go there again? We know how the story ends, but the people who loved Jesus were terrified. Jesus tried to tell them what was ahead, but most didn’t understand. They faced the loss of everything they believed in. They witnessed what appeared to them to be the triumph of the forces of evil. They came face to face with the jagged claws of death. When death comes like it did to Jesus, those who live are still not sure they can survive. God asks us to go there again in Holy Week. Part of being open to God is finding room in your spirit for this reality of suffering, loss, and disillusionment. Yes, Easter will come, but it does not erase the trauma that comes before. Each moment of suffering retains its integrity, its reality. It is not vacated or dissipated by overwhelming joy. It is part of our history that is drawn into a larger stream of experiences. When the joy of resurrection fills our lives, that particle of suffering loses its power to determine the future, but it is still there. It is a part of who we are in this world until we are taken into the eternity of God.
We come together today dragging with us the heavy weight of fear, anxiety, and dread. These emotions own too much real estate in our hearts and minds. They take up too much of the room that God needs to reorder our hearts and fill us with the life-giving power of the Spirit. As we seek to follow God in these trying times and in the difficult days ahead, I offer you a prayer by Howard Thurman:
I seek the enlargement of my heart that there may be room for Peace.
Already there is room enough for chaos. There is in every day’s experience much that makes for confusion and bewilderment. Often I do not understand quite how my relations with others become frayed and chaotic. Sometimes this chaos is a positive thing; it means that something new, creative and whole is beginning to pull together the tattered fragments of my relationship with a person and to fashion it into that which delights the spirit and makes glad the heart. Sometimes the chaos is negative, a sign of degeneration in a relationship once meaningful and good. There is room enough for chaos.
But the need of my heart is for room for Peace: Peace of mind that inspires singleness of purpose; Peace of heart that quiets all fears and uproots all panic; Peace of spirit that filters through all confusions and robs them of their power. These I see NOW. I know that here in this quietness my life can be infused with Peace. Therefore, before God, I seek the enlargement of my heart at this moment, that there may be room for Peace.
Fear not for God is with you. God will strengthen you, help you, and uphold you with a victorious hand, now and forever. Amen.