February 16, 2020 – Epiphany 6A
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here.
What do you think about when you exchange the Peace? Every Sunday, after we confess our sins and hear the promise of God’s absolution, we greet one another in the ritual exchange of Peace. What in your mind is that all about? Is it a chance to greet your family and close friends? An opportunity to hug someone you haven’t seen in a while? A chance to stretch your legs before the prolonged kneeling associated with the eucharistic prayer?
I hesitate to mention anything because I don’t want us to become overly conscious of what is currently a beautiful ritual, but each of our three congregations has a very distinct way of exchanging the Peace. At 7:30am, in our Rite One service, when it’s time for the Peace, the congregation seeks each other out up and down the aisle. What could easily be accomplished in 20 or 30 seconds stretches out for a few minutes as people shake hands, hug each other, ask how things are going. It’s a smaller, more intimate, more regular service, and most people seem grateful to see familiar faces.
At the 8:45am service, the Peace lasts even longer because our choir, which is mostly children and youth, is intentional about going out into the congregation to find their families in order to exchange the peace. I think that the rest of the congregation welcomes the chance for a prolonged greeting, but it feels like the last ones to get back to their seats before the announcements begin are the members of the choir.
At 11:00am, things are much more subdued. We turn to our neighbors, to those in the pew in front and behind, and perhaps wave politely to a friend a few rows in front of us, but then we take our seats. You may have noticed that the clergy often wander down the chancel steps and out into the congregation, but woe to the wandering priest who strays too far down the aisle at the 11:00 service. That congregation finds their way back to their seats rather quickly, and my colleagues sometimes get stranded in the back of the church.
Some of us love the Peace, while others of us can’t stand it. Although I don’t know that there are any at St. Paul’s, in many congregations, there are still holdouts who prefer the approach of the 1928 prayer book, which, like the prayer books before it, didn’t include the Peace in the liturgy. Those traditionalists, instead of seeking out anyone with whom to share the Peace, usually stare straight ahead, hoping that those around them will get the message and not approach them with such a newfangled liturgical invention. Of course, the Peace is actually an ancient practice that has been included in the Eucharist from before the fourth century. In fact, even the ’28 prayer book has elements of the Peace written into the Exhortation, which the priest was presumed to read to the congregation on a regular basis:
And if ye shall perceive your offenses to be such as are not only against God, but also against your neighbours; then ye shall reconcile yourselves unto them; being ready to make restitution and satisfaction, according to the uttermost of your powers, for all injuries and wrongs done by you to any other; and being likewise ready to forgive others who have offended you, as ye would have forgiveness of your offenses at God’s hand: for otherwise the receiving of holy Communion doth nothing else but increase your condemnation.In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says it another way: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The Peace is designed to be a ritualized version of seeking out your sibling in faith in order to be reconciled with them before approaching God. The Exhortation, which is also in our current prayer book, is designed to be read to the congregation a week before Communion is celebrated in order to give everyone time to go and make amends to the ones we have wronged before worship the following Sunday. The Peace is a liturgical approximation of that effort, not a substitute for it. It’s not designed to be a time when you seek out specifically the people whom you have hurt or who have hurt you, but that’s not a bad place to start. When we turn to our neighbor and offer a handshake, embrace, or kiss of peace, we aren’t merely greeting the people we love. We are declaring that together the community of the baptized are reconciled to one another so that we can now approach God’s table and share the meal that is the reminder of our reconciliation with God.
With these words, Jesus makes it plain that we must be reconciled to one another before we can seek reconciliation with God. Why? Because that is the nature of the unconditional love that draws us together and draws us into the presence of God. The beauty of unconditional love is that it has no limits, but the challenge of that same love is that it completely falls apart as soon as you start to place restrictions on it. If it isn’t the same for absolutely everyone—if there are individuals out there whom we have cut off from God’s love—then it can’t be true for us as well. We are able to draw near to God because of God’s love—because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter who we are or where we’ve been or what we’ve done. God welcomes all of us with open, loving arms. But that can’t be true for us if we’re the reason someone else is unable to receive that love.
The instructions Jesus gives us are pretty absurd. They don’t make sense in this world. Only in the reign of God do they make any sense. If you walked all the way from Galilee down to Jerusalem to offer your gift at the temple and there remembered that you offended the person who lives down the street from you, would you really leave your gift there, walk all the way back—six days of walking each way—to be reconciled to your neighbor before returning to offer your gift? Would you? Jesus says yes. That’s how powerfully important the experience of reconciliation is. If we are not reconciled with one another, if we cannot let go of the anger and resentment of being wounded, if we cannot put down the guilt and shame of having hurt someone else, we can never know the power of God’s love.
Why do you think Jesus equates anger with murder and lust and divorce with adultery? It’s not because Jesus believes that only perfect people belong in God’s reign. It’s because Jesus knows that, if we let broken relationships persist among us, we cannot know the beauty of a whole and perfected relationship with God. What fractured relationships are keeping you from experiencing the liberating love that God already has given you in Jesus Christ? Let that love work its power within you. Ask God to help you let go. Ask God to give you the courage to seek out the one you have wronged and to grant you the strength to forgive the one who has wronged you. In other words, ask God to make the limitless power of God’s unconditional love a reality in your life so that you might find ways to recognize that love in others as well.