Peace be with you! (And also with you)
When I was 14 years old I visited Hamburg for the first time without my parents. My brother and I took part in a national musical competition and spent a long weekend in the city. We stayed right at the Landungsbrücken, very close to Hamburg’s well-known landmark Michel. So, on Sunday we went to church. Figuring, that that way we would save the entrance-fee. I don’t remember much of the service but the sign of peace at one point. My brother and I were a bit startled when suddenly people around us took action in greetaing each other warmly. I mean, usually we talk and sing a lot about all kind of community and forgiveness and love during worship without actually doing anything. This time it was different. Strangers came towards us, greeted us, saying “Peace be with you”. I still remember the eyes of a maybe 50-year-old, who greeted us. Probably as surprised as himself to see teens sitting in church all by themselves. I felt like actually being part of that congregation I had just joined for the first time.
Somehow, I have never been part of a congregation that practices the sign of peace during its liturgy. It’s something I miss. Of course, one can degrade it stating: “Ah, it’s just adding even more words to our worship. Maybe even more empty words. People might do it, but don’t actually mean it. I don’t feel like shaking hands with strangers…”
I believe in the power of words. Because I can hardly imagine someone, say, “Peace be with you” without somehow feeling the depth and importance of these words. After you shook the hand of a stranger and told him “Peace be with you” he is not a stranger anymore. You two will have become allies of peace. And you two will leave as messengers of peace. That’s why every worship ends with the call “Go in peace and serve the Lord”.
Today’s readings are full of images of peace. The Psalm envisions world-peace: light, praise, and health among all nations. We heard about Paul’s first travel to Europe, where he founded the first European church by baptizing Lydia. A woman was the first European Christian. Paul experienced generous hospitality. A first step to peace.
John has a vision of what will be. Heavenly Jerusalem won’t need a temple anymore “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”. The cities’ “gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there”. Heaven is a place full of light and joy, without any borders.
This kind of world-peace is probably the one wish, everyone can agree on.
Last week during coffee-hour one of you said: “There has always been fighting and wars and there will always be. It’s human.” Yes, it’s human after the fall of humankind. Ever since then we try to be like God, challenging God and one another, fighting God and one another. We follow the clever snake telling us what to do to be the best. We ask “Mirror, mirror on the wall who’s the fairest of them all” and the snake answers: “You, my Darling, are fair so true. But then the woman over there, see her, she is a thousand times fairer than you.” So, I look around and see all the beautiful and wonderful people, God created. But, instead of loving and admiring them, instead of getting to know them, I envy them, I fear them, I demonize them. Because being one among God’s children is not enough for my ego. I want to be special.
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”
Jesus, the God that didn’t look like a God, gives us peace that doesn’t look like peace. Jesus surrendered and died. In the old times, God fought for his people, won over the people of Egypt, drowned their soldiers and horses. In Jesus God stopped fighting by harming other people and started fighting by harming himself. His weapons were words and love and forgiveness. Even towards his hangmen.
How do we manage to live peacefully ever after? Without looking into the mirror to make sure that I am still the best child of God?
“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”
What’s the opposite of peace? FEAR. Not war or fight, but fear.
When my kids are afraid they want to be the nearest they can to my husband and me. At night they walk up to our bed, they cuddle close to us, hide their faces under the blanket. And then we comfort them, assure them we are there to protect them. We face the threat together. You had a bad dream? Tell me more. What happened? What where you afraid of? Why was that so frightening? While naming the dangers my kid’s stop sobbing, their voices calm down. We hug, talk. The shock has vanished.
When I am afraid, I see enemies everywhere. My mom is too far away to hide away in her soothing arms and hey, I am an adult, I don’t need that anymore. Instead, I react like one reacts to fear. I either try to forget about it and hide away psychologically. Or I start to fight. Unfortunately, I rarely fight my fears but the people I am afraid of.
Let me give you an example. At my daughter’s school I am part of the PTA, parent-teacher-association. I want to get involved, understand the school-system and do everything I can so my kids will have the best possible experience at school. But then I am also new here looking for new friends. I thought that PTA might be a good place to find like-minded other parents my age to hang out with. After a couple of months we had another regular meeting. Really, it was totally normal, business as usual. But I felt left out. I had a hard time making conversations, I felt like I wasn’t being heard or taken seriously. On my way home I was extremely upset, biking downhill, swearing badly, even crying a little bit. I pitied myself and was angry with these other parents, thinking how ignorant and stupid they are and how I shouldn’t bother spending my time at PTA anymore. I just needed to decide whether I wanted to silently leave the PTA and hide away or whether I wanted to have a Showdown to accuse them first, tell them how they treated me, make them feel bad about it and then leave the PTA. Imagining to take vengeance can be truly liberating.
When I told my husband about it, he had a hard time understanding my anger. So, I had to explain it to him over and over again – until I noticed: Hey, they didn’t do anything wrong. “Yes, I was left out signing a card. But that was accidently because I was still eating and people tried to be polite. Yes, my opinions weren’t as much appreciated as I would have liked them to be. But they weren’t that brilliant either.” What made me so upset was something different.
It was my fear of being rejected because I am not a Californian native. It was my fear not to find a real home in Berkeley by making real friends. It was my fear of not being able to belong. That made my heart hard and closed and crunched.
Last Sunday I talked about true love being blind. True love only wants to see the best in people, excuses failures, forgives mistakes. Well, fear is also blind. It only sees the worst in people, makes up failures, looks for patterns and quickly generalizes.
Last week I watched a TED-talk about Fear by Marc Scarcelli. As a powerful example he showed the picture of an American, holding a sign: “All I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11”. And I am sure, many people across the country agree with him.
Many of you have lived in the U.S. at times, when it wasn’t easy to be German or to speak German. During the two World Wars St. Matthew’s was the only church in the city that kept German services. All the other churches switched to English only. Because people generalized and figured that all Germans must be bad, racist murderers. Because people didn’t care to get to know you before judging you. And, as humans, we are afraid of what and who we don’t know.
And even before that, at the beginning of the 20th century, so many Germans came to the states, that they made 25% of the population in San Francisco. Americans became afraid of losing English as their first language. They were afraid of losing their identity.
At other times, Americans were afraid of too many Catholics immigrating to the U.S. They feared the Pope’s long arm that would stir up a revolution and destroy the American democracy. It sounds like a joke today, it wasn’t back then. People were afraid of losing their freedom, their denominations and democracy by strangers. Immigrants like they used to be, coming for a better future. People were afraid of change.
What people most fear deep down in their hearts are these three things: to forget who I am, the power of change and the feeling of not belonging where I live. These are universal fears we share with all the immigrants in the world. And with all the people who have never left their home-city.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” How so? Because Jesus promised us: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.”
Jesus peace is the peace to know who God is. Because someone I know, I don’t have to be afraid of irrationally. Above all, God so desperately wanted to get to know us that became one of us. God became human.
Jesus peace is the peace to know who I am. Above all my searching for my identity, my question “Who am I really?”, my attempt to explore my heritage and my present and my future, I am God’s very own. Yes, I love my home-country, I love my mother-tongue, I love adventures and Lindt chocolate, I own my people’s past and take responsibility for my kid’s future. But most importantly I am a child of God. No matter where I live and what I fear and how many people like what I do or say.
Jesus peace is the power of peaceful change. God became human. What greater of a change can there ever be? God died at the cross. What can there ever happen that could disturb me more? God turned the world upside down and totally surrendered, disarming the evil by the unexpected event of a dead God. Jesus changed the way God looks at us. He forgives us because he now knows from first-hand experience how challenging it is to be human.
Jesus peace is the peace to know where I belong. God`s home is my home. God’s people are my people. God’s creation is my world. That’s where I belong, no matter where I happen to come from or where I happen to live.
“We have to be stricter as Christians”, one of you said last week. “We have to cling to our faith and commandments as clearly as the Muslims and Jews.” I absolutely agree. Let’s be strict Christians, who love one another, seek the peace and worship God.
Jesus’ peace is the peace to let us live bravely and stand up against our fears. That’s what we need to be strict about as Christians. To be strict Christians, following the peaceful path of Jesus.
“Peace be with you” is our way to say “I love you”. So, Fear not! Peace be with you! Amen.
This post is also available in: German