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‘Peace! The perfect word, is sounding, like a universal hymn’ – what a great line of verse – and how it keeps going – ‘under oceans, over mountains, to the world’s remotest rim…. ‘ Ah. My sermon this morning is very theological, so let me start by considering that that line from the hymn unfolds on a couple of levels – and one is theological. ‘Perfect’ is a very particular and complex word in the Bible, where it can mean ‘perfect’ in our usual sense meaning ideal or flawless, but also it can mean fulfilled or complete, as when in Hebrews 10:14, it says about Jesus ‘by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.’ That didn’t mean that all Jesus’ followers were now flawless, rather that he had, with his death, redeemed them, completed them, fulfilled the promise. This hymn we just sang was written by an American poet and scholar of Transcendentalism, Odell Shepherd, a man very familiar with theological interpretations of language. So there’s a whole layer of theology in that word ‘perfect’ in that beautiful opening: Peace, the perfect word…. Peace – the fulfilling word – peace the completion. But apart from that more religious definition, in the most everyday sense, there is such a grand, great wholeness to that lyric that really reflects the way wholeness is the essence of peace, doesn’t it? Peace: Wholeness, healing, calm, comfort, ease, rest, completion. Try saying that word aloud with me now and pay attention the feelings it evokes: “Peace.” Let yourself feel the sense of the wholeness the word conveys. Try it again: “Peace” – in your soul. Peace – in this faith community. Peace – in this place and time.
I can say peace – and feel it here – or at home in the quiet and warm with my dogs at my feet. I can say it and feel it utterly – even though my peace is just a piece of peace, even if my peace is shared by no one else, even – even – when so many have no peace at all.
Peace is one of those big words, one syllable that echoes and calls beyond its own brief sound, it’s part of an extraordinary class of words all like that: war, love, hate, kill, live, die, fall, fly, hope, faith, death, god… see what I mean? Each one of those words holds a world in its brief sound.
Now we’ve rolled round to December, with at least three holidays that turn on peace.
Hannukah – the peace restored across a land, peace that allowed for the temple to be rededicated, for the sacred fire to be kindled again, for communion with the divine, peace that was won after brutal persecution and a winning an impossible war, peace at the cost of blood, and life, hard-won peace, fragile peace that, once won, was undermined by infighting and corruption.
Solstice – the peace of the lit candle and Yule log that burn bright and warm amidst winter’s cold, the peace of the evergreen bough, full of sap and scent, brought from the frozen hard world without: the peace of life and light standing against darkness and lifelessness.
Christmas – the birth of the prince of peace, the birth of hope under a far-shining star. In the same land as Hannukah, wracked again by the persecution of different invaders grinding the nation under their heel, came the birth of a child. Full of all the promise every child holds, he grew to be a leader and stories grew around his greatness, stories that said even just his birth showed he would change everything, simply by preaching and living his messages compassion and care, faith and the promise of new life.
The more we look at peace the more we see that there are many kinds of peace, many definitions of peace, many understandings not only about what peace is, but about how to create it. Pieces of peace, if you will, which gives rise to a bunch of questions. My sermon this morning is one of theological inquiry: is peace, with its sense of wholeness, actually whole itself? Is it one, perhaps a whole comprised of many parts, like a rainbow? Or is it many separate experiences, with commonalities, but also differences that matter enough that there is no one peace spreading like a universal hymn? Is peace’s nature mathematical? Can be added to, subtracted from, multiplied or divided? Is it porous, contagious, universal, contextual, truly attainable… or truly impossible?
Our reading this morning comes from the Daoist faith and its great philosopher Lao-Tse. Peace in the world, peace in the nations, peace in the cities, peace between neighbors, in the home, in the heart. Like one of those movie shots at the opening of a film that whizzes in from an outer space shot of the stars to Earth to a continent, then a region, then the visible land, the homes and businesses, the neighborhood, the building, the room, the person with whom the story begins. Sometimes we think of peace that needs to trickle down into each and every home and heart – but Daoism says that’s exactly backwards, it all begins with us, each of us, in our hearts and living and then between us and those we touch – and that thus does it accumulate. And what is the ‘it’ here we’re speaking of? Harmony. Daoism says that peace is derived from harmony, balance. The world is composed not of warring opposites but of complimentary opposites that comprise a greater whole. When grain reaches its fullest life in summer, fully yang, it will naturally begin to transform into its opposite quality – go to seed and then die back for winter – fully yin – in an endless, balanced cycle. (Wikipedia) When all is in balance, the yin and the yang, the shade and the light – both valued, both defined by each other – when all is in cyclical or rhythmic balance, then all is in harmony with all else, and quiescence, serenity, perfect peace achieved.
Our own Unitarian theologian, famed 19th c. American thinker and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, was always about being complete in yourself. Living your own fullest life, realizing your abilities and dreams most deeply, attending to the wisdom of your own conscience and perception in the world. Thus did he live and it served him well. Very much in this vein, on peace, he wrote “No one can bring you peace but yourself.”
Let’s go back to my peace at home again. If I am sitting therre, feeling utterly peaceful, with a crackling fire to warm my room and dogs to warm my feet and a mug of warm beverage at my hand, the people I love well and safe as well, so that I am as content as can be – as peaceful as can be – and at that very moment there are hundreds of thousands in the world without peace, without safety or warmth or companionship or food – is my peace real? My immediate experience is utterly peaceful in that moment – even if it being balanced, shall we say, by the privations or suffering of others elsewhere, far or even near. Does that impact my peace in any way, and should it?
What Ralph Waldo Emerson would likely have said is no, it doesn’t, and it needn’t. He lived in the lovely village of Concord, Massachusetts in the 1800’s and though he travelled some, and read more, literature from across the world and the world’s religions, he didn’t exist as we do now, in the immediate expansiveness and interconnectedness of the global village. So much as I love Emerson for many of his insights, I would have to say that potent as my peace feels to me in that moment, in a very yin-yang way it may be both real and illusion. Because my peace is only my peace, only a piece of peace and a very small piece at that. So I need to edge myself closer to George DeBenneville, the 18th c. American Universalist who wrote this about what grounded his conversion to Universalism way back then “And I took it so to heart that I believed that my happiness would be incomplete while one creature remained miserable.” What if we use DeBenneville’s sense of his Universalist faith and substitute ‘peace’ for ‘happiness’? “And I took it so to heart that I believed my peace would be incomplete while one creature remained miserable.”
Yeah. If I’m going to be realistic about my peace, then yeah. My peace, real as it feels to me, is only mine and it is incomplete while another remains miserable. Since many are miserable, it’s both real and very, very incomplete. A very imperfect peace, definitely mathematical in nature – divided and subtracted by the un-universality of it, one which would surely be added to and multiplied if it were more widely shared.
My peace would be imperfect even if I looked to other faith traditions – for instance those in the Bible, where the definition of peace includes active relationship to the sacred, in biblical terms – contemplation of and relation to God. As it says in Isaiah 26:3 “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.” Or as we might say now, ‘Those who keep their minds and lives focused on you, God, because they trust you, those you will keep in perfect peace.’
Any historically-grounded skeptic will point out that even some of God’s greatest devotees were treated to anything but perfect peace in their living and sometimes their dying. But anyone who reads the writing of God’s devotees – early Christians and Jews, 12th c. Christians like Julian of Norwich or Hildegard of Bingen, or 12th c. Jews like Maimonides, also sees that their understandings of peace, of blessedness, and of true communion with the sacred are complicated, and leave any story of martyrdom open to interpretations that we may or may not be able to accept ourselves. Regardless of history, the bible’s promise of peace is through mindfulness and relationship to the divine. And I can buy that – some of my own moments of feeling utterly aware of holiness and of a sense of deep, overwhelming connection to what I call the divine – these moments were surely peaceful, though not only peaceful – but also peaceful, and beautiful in that peace, beautiful in a different way than simply being deeply content by the hearth in my home.
How many more pieces of peace there are. The way some people speak of death as a peace attained after an agonizing life or illness. The peace that is the impossibly still center in the midst of swirling chaos in a hurricane – or a storm of events. The simple, simple peace that is freedom of fear for your life or your loved ones – peace because we are not afraid they are sick or dying, not afraid they may be killed on their way home in our neighborhood or killed in a war or killed in a gang. What peace to feel that – what peace, especially if we have known that fear, days or years without that peace.
Speaking only for myself, I am not a pacifist, because I do not believe pacifism can make the world safe for anyone, though I wish it could. I am not a pacifist because I am not willing to die rather than fight and possibly kill. But flawed as pacifism may seem to me, war, we all know, war is not the answer. As our nation moves towards Christmas and the advent of the prince of peace, our relationship with peace is fatally complicated by our relationship to war. Loving peace is not enough and hating war is not enough and I cannot preach about peace without saying that the challenge of finding the larger path to peace for our nation and our world will not come until we have learned some new way that we have not yet been able to see. Perhaps it is before us, perhaps it is around us, perhaps this will be the century when we will learn to find new ways of resolution that do not shatter lives and souls. In the midst of all the pieces of peace, there are perhaps pieces of peace we cannot even yet name because we cannot see them. They are the unseen colors that require a special lens, more rods and cones than our spiritual, moral eyes yet possess. They are the elusive fragrance we cannot quite identify. The strange word in a new language that we cannot pronounce because we have not heard it clearly enough yet.
Peace, you complex and elusive, beckoning, beautiful thing. We know you – and we cannot grasp you. We have you and we lose you. In the end, it’s not just different words for the same thing: peace, shalom, irini, mir, yin-yang, salaam, it’s actually different words for different pieces of piece. They’re not all the same. Harmony. Balance. Communion with the divine. Stillness. Content. Freedom from suffering. They are different and they are part of a great, blessed whole, of all those together: harmony, balance, communion, stillness, content, freedom from suffering: yes, yes, peace.
As we move into these holidays that celebrate peace, as we sing about piece and tell stories about the advent of peace or the winning of peace or the experience of peace, what lenses do we need, what do we need to see, to hear, to understand, for all the pieces of peace to become, truly, whole, to bring us closer to that day when no one suffers while we enjoy our piece of peace? My mind turns to Lao-Tse again, to this idea of harmony, as I look forward to singing carols and harmonies, rich with layers, voices and instruments that to not need to sound the same, indeed that create a richer whole because of their difference, their blending and their distinctness, and I think our traditions have more to teach us, perhaps a path to show us, if we listen as we sing. Amen.