Take a moment to open your hymnals to 661. These verses are written by William Alexander Percy, a Mississippian from Greenville, and uncle of the famous Louisiana writer, Walker Percy. Percy is telling us something about the peace that comes from God, and how that peace fills our hearts brimful, and yet breaks our hearts as well. It is not the peace that we often think about, that state of trouble free living so many associated with peaceful living. It is the old human story buried in the sod, as something that exists a bit beyond what is human. And although it is not what we expect, it is still something for which we long.
I believe that Percy is saying something true about appearance and reality. This hymn is telling us that sometimes God’s peace will look anything but peaceful in how we often have peace described to us. In fact, God’s peace might unmake the world a bit, might unmake our worlds a bit as well.
Each of us have notions of what real peace might look like. Left to my own devices, I find myself yearning for a situation of optimal experience, where what I love, and those I love, are not constrained by the limitations of time and space and compassion that seem to riddle the world in which we live.
Percy’s hymn challenges the figments of my imagination. God’s peace might very well challenge what I think makes for peace in my own life.
Jesus is challenging his disciples a bit. “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.”
The implication is that if we walk in the peace that Jesus offers, there will come moments with some fear and trembling. I might be tempted to say, “Thanks but no thanks.” However, Jesus is preparing his friends for that day when he will no longer be with them; a day when there may be no touchstone upon which to rest trembling fingers.
Every person in this room today can tell a story about when life suddenly changes, and when what we have thought of as a peaceful life is taken from us. Any number of things opens that box of powerlessness. Usually it is a loss. The loss of a marriage, the loss of a dream, the loss of a life, the loss of some hopeful tether to which we have bound the days of our lives. There is panic. There are questions. There is sorrow and there is anger and there is a reminder of the powerlessness that comes with being human.
It is hard to grasp “peace” in the midst of any crisis.
And perhaps you are like me. Often I would rather fill the painful emptiness with old certainties and half-baked platitudes. A soft and whispering proposition of peace, telling me that indeed my suffering will “make sense” if I will only be patient. “Be at peace, be at peace, that is just the way of the world, it will all work out in the end . . . time will heal all wounds.” Although it is sweet, although it is soothing, I find that there is a bitter aftertaste; thus the truth I find in the words of the hymn.
The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.
Sometimes there remains an aching in the heart that no soft and sentimental words can touch.
For some of us, there are days when what the world calls peace is simply not enough blanket to cover us from the cold. The platitudes are not enough. We need the power and the presence of something, someone, who will do more than just make sense out of our troubles; we need that someone who will walk a mile in our shoes with us. I need someone who will walk that mile for me.
I do not want to simply close the old door; I need a new door. I need a new life. What Jesus promises is that there is a new door, there is a new life, and there is a new guide in the Holy Spirit who will carry a light into that dark forest for us. It is the power of the Holy Spirit walking in our shoes with and for us who will find a passage through the superficial platitudes of a worldly peace, who carries a balm for aching hearts. The Spirit carries a peace from God that overcomes this world, although it often seems foolish and is misunderstood by this world.
It is the Holy Spirit who undertakes the deep gardening of the human heart; with God’s unseen hand rebuilding lives that have lost their tether on peace. It is the Holy Spirit bringing a real, a meaningful, a lasting peace; not as the world gives, but as Christ gives to those who follow him.
Those in this room today who are following Christ will more and more find that their lives look like the lives of the disciples. Our lives will sometimes look anything but peaceful in the eyes of the world, in the eyes of those who confuse leisure and pleasure with the peace that only comes from above.
The promise that Jesus makes to this small band some two thousand years ago is a promise that stands today; we are not left alone in this world to die a thousand deaths in our hearts and souls with the sentimental bromides of a sick world wiping its feet on us like a doormat. No. We have more, much more, than the “peace” that the world would hand to us like a door prize for children; saying essentially, “thank you for playing – please do come again.”
That holy and powerful someone stands with us, and pushes aside the peace that the world would give us like a piece of candy. There is a holy and powerful someone who brings meat, who brings medicine, who brings hope, who brings the words that come from another time and place where our Redeemer liveth. There is a holy and powerful someone who carries the divine gift; the peace that can only come from God.
It is for this someone that we pray. It is for this someone to who we give our hearts and souls. It is for this someone that we raise our hands week after week, year after year, century after century, offering the worlds of the timeless blessing:
Listen – listen very closely – listen.
The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. Amen.
Now let us pray for but one thing . . . the marvelous peace of God.
Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, the original version, is a movie that our family has gotten to watch perhaps no less than 100 times. It’s one of Benjamin’s favorites. As most of you know, Benjamin is a special needs child, and he finds tremendous joy in various parts of that movie. After you watch Willy Wonka about 77 times, you begin to become interested in things other than the story line.
Watching it well into the “100th plus” time today, I notice there is a conspicuous lack of cell phones, tablets, laptops, and video games. Rather than text his mother and grandparents that he has found a Golden Ticket, Charlie has to run all the way home with the news of his discovery. It is the world of 1970. No cell phones. Rotary phones. No cable television. 3 channel TV with rabbit ears. Transistor radios. There is no invisible electronic web tying everyone together.
One scene in the movie, a group of golden ticket hunters visit a computer laboratory. The machine takes up an entire room. The computer engineer is punching numbers in code on a key pad about the size of an old fashioned desk calculator, and communicating with the machine using punch cards. By our standards it is a very clunky and cumbersome process.
There is a very good chance that the computer being asked to predict where the Golden Tickets might be located is programmed with a computer language called PASCAL.
In the late 1960’s and early 70’s in Switzerland, computer engineer Niklaus Wirth developed an innovative computer language for programming and named after the 17th Century mathematician and Christian mystic named Blaise Pascal. Blaise Pascal was a prodigy in mathematics, writing papers conic sections which drew the attention of Rene Descartes. He also experimented in some of the first studies of atmospheric pressure, and the effect of air pressure upon liquids, helping to pave the way for early barometers, the invention of the syringe, and the hydraulic press.
The young Pascal invented what has come to be called the Pascaline, the first calculator; invented for his father who was the presiding judge of the local tax court.
Unlike other thinkers and intellectuals of the Enlightenment, as his investigations of the natural world expanded, Pascal found himself moving more deeply into religious questions. The spirit of this particular age was essentially the opposite. Thinkers, scientists, observers of the natural world during the 17th and 18th Century, standing on the shoulders of their Renaissance fathers, were mostly concerned with shedding the great shroud of religion and theology that they felt had been spread over human thought and experience; God talk was something to be left behind, not sought.
Swimming against the tide, Pascal became a follower of a sect within French Roman Catholicism called the Jansenism. This community was shaped by the work of Saint Augustine, and placed tremendous emphasis on the power of God’s grace over that of religious observances and good deeds; you can imagine that they drew the attention of some in the Church hierarchy.
On the night of November 23, 1654, Blaise Pascal was visited by the spirit of God in such a way that his life was completely transformed – he called it the night of fire. Upon his death, one of his servants found a piece of parchment sewn into Pascal’s coat, describing what he experienced on that night.
‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. God of Jesus Christ. My God and your God. ‘Your God shall be my God.’ The world forgotten, and everything except God. He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels. Greatness of the human soul. ‘O righteous Father, the world had not known you, but I have known you.’ Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy. I have cut myself off from him. They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters. ‘My God will you forsake me?’ Let me not be cut off from him for ever! And this is life eternal, that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.’ Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him. Let me never be cut off from him! He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel. Sweet and total renunciation. Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director. Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth. I will not forget your word. Amen.
About 8 years after the death of Blaise Pascal in 1662, a housekeeper was sorting through closets and clothing and happened to notice something sewn into Pascal’s coat. Beneath the cloth was a parchment and inside this was another faded piece of paper. In Pascal’s handwriting, on both the parchment and the paper were nearly the same words. Beside hand-drawn crosses.
Blaise Pascal, the man whose mathematical genius lay as the foundational computational language of the world that we inhabit, from the computer in Willy Wonka to this little magical device I hold in my hand this morning, stood neck-deep in that intersection of scientific materialism and religious mysticism. It is an intersection that continues to haunt the world in which we live.
While millions upon millions of human beings daily depend upon the insights that Pascal offered regarding mathematics and the properties of hydraulics, which have shaped the cell phones in our pockets, and the syringes used at the hospital this morning, far fewer give Pascal more than a passing glance when considering the depths of religious truth that he shared.
I wonder, would the doubters of God, would the skeptics, would the Doubting Thomas’s of our age think differently about God, faith, and religion, if they knew that one of the great minds upon which their Twitter, Texts, Tik Tok, You Tube, and Facebook depended had sewn a prayer into the liner of his coat declaring his absolute commitment and obedience to the Risen Christ and the mysterious power of God.
What is it within us, which demands we maintain suspended animation? Apart from God? Why is it that we so often build our sense of “self” upon the insistence of doubting God, and disobeying the dictates of his presence? Are doubt, nay obstinacy, the only means by which to create a human identity?
Here are a few of Pascal’s answers to such questions:
“Human beings must be known to be loved; but Divine beings must be loved to be known.”
“Faith is different from proof; the latter is human, the former is a Gift from God.”
“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”
“Love has reasons . . . which reason cannot understand,” Blaise Pascal
The response of the contemporary Doubting Thomas would probably be something akin to – unless I see the lab reports I will not believe. Unless I see the corresponding data and the secondary equations I will not believe. Unless I see XYZ I will not believe. All of which is simply another way of saying, unless I see for myself, I will not believe. Unless I prove for myself, I will not believe. Unless you make it about ME, the satisfaction of my curiosity, I will not believe.
Dr. Ian Hutchison regularly stands before groups of students and faculty at universities around the country to making the case for the reality of miracles, for the reality of God, for the reality of things like the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
So that they will take him more seriously, Dr. Hutchison visits with them in their own language, their own milieu. He presents his case as Hypothesis’, not unlike that of a scientist making a case. Regarding the Resurrection of Jesus he has Three Hypothesis’:
One – we are not talking about a real resurrection. It is a story, a myth, a Gospel train running on the borrowed steam children’s bedtime stories, or the adult fantasies of Pagan fertility gods and goddesses dressed up in Jewish lore by a small band of romantics in the first century. Because you see, a literal resurrection would contradict the “known” laws of nature – what we know of nature to this point in human history. It is a myth, one of those “almost but not yet” propositions, that might capture the imagination of some lesser lights, but not those with the power to reason and think critically.
But this would make the first disciples liars, or propagators of fantasy. And as Dr. Hutchison asks, “How could an untruth logically support high moral character? How could it have sustained the apostles through the extremes of persecution they experienced in founding Christianity?”
Two – There was a literal and bodily resurrection of a first century Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth. Dr. Hutchison wants to appeal to the materialist and scientific sensibilities of his audiences, and so he asks the rhetorical question – “How can a scientist be a Christian? How can a scientist believe in a miracle? In a resurrection?”
He answers his own question by stating that science cannot disprove the resurrection . . . because the natural sciences speak to the mechanics and working of the world of nature. Science functions primarily by observation and experiment, miracles by their own definition are “abnormal, non-reproducible, and so therefore cannot be proved” by scientific method.
I love the way Dr. Hutchison puts it, “It does not take modern science to tell us that humans don’t rise from the dead . . . people knew that perfectly well in the first century; just as they knew water does not instantly turn into wine.”
You see, the scientific method, the materialist worldview, is not calibrated in such a way as to give evidentiary proof that a miracle exists or does not exist; and the insistence that all of known human existence must find a place within the boundaries of the laws of science, and that nothing might exist outside of those boundaries, is a proposition of metaphysics; and perhaps might be its own sort of statement of faith rather than statement of fact.
“Science offers natural explanations of natural events. It has no power or need to assert that only natural events happen.”
I sometimes like to think of this as insisting that the entire Cosmos and utterance of God climb into our contemporary, yet incomplete, existential tool box called scientific materialism; perhaps the truer invitation is for us to crawl out of our tool box and recognize that we are the smaller entity in the Universe.
“Quit pretending to be the Center of the Universe, that spot has already been taken.”
In fact, Dr. Hutchison insists that the true measure of Jesus’ Resurrection is the historical record; and in that regard, we have as much evidence as for most other events in ancient history.
Three- Dr. Hutchison says, “Perhaps I was brainwashed as a child . . . you might guess I was brainwashed to believe in the Resurrection as a child. But no, I did not grow up in a home where I was taught to believe in the resurrection. I came to faith in Jesus when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University and was baptized in the chapel of Kings College on my 20th birthday. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are as compelling to me now as then.”
The reason I really like what Dr. Ian Hutchison has to say about the intersection of reason, science, and the life of faith in God, is that “Ian Hutchison is a plasma physicist and Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He and his research group are international pioneers exploring the generation and confinement of plasmas hotter than the sun’s center; experimenting on a world-leading magnetic confinement device they designed and built. The research aims to understand how to produce practical energy from controlled nuclear fusion reactions, the power source of the stars.”
Like Blaise Pascal, Ian Hutchison is a scientist who has been touched by the Risen Christ.
This is something that I find admirable about Ian Hutchison, Blaise Pascal, Doubting Thomas – they are establishing a relationship with Jesus Christ that is not the result of a prevailing cultural wind, having been brainwashed by contemporaries and culture – Blessed Thomas who doubts – the Apostle with the questions, is giving a gift to many through the ages. And I am grateful for that gift; the gift of asking the question, the gift of looking for a tactile relationship to the living God; ideas about the Resurrection, talk about the Resurrection, conjectures about the Resurrection – those are fine in their own way – substitutes of a sort – but they are not the thing itself.
Thomas is insists upon having something more. In God’s infinite love for His children, that need, that desire, that journey is granted to Thomas. There is nothing easier for the skeptic, living in a skeptical age, to do than create a puzzle, a riddle, an intellectual/scientific obstacle course for a deity they have no real desire to meet, know, and ultimately follow. It is not difficult to construct a box in the imagination of our hearts that we have no real expectation that God will fit inside; it is a very skilled and high functioning avoidance mechanism.
One of the miracles of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ through time and space is that although many, many such boxes are built; the Risen Christ continues to meet the Doubting Thomas’ of every age in the midst of their own neighborhoods, in their own textbooks, in their own laboratories, in the midst of their own fortresses of knowledge and research, and say to them – “Touch me here, listen to me here, follow me here. Do not doubt, but believe.” The miracle of faith is bestowed, and many, many, continue to follow.
Sometimes believing in the reality and truth of Christ is simply a matter of seeing it with new eyes.
The Reverend Harry Pritchett, an Alabama boy who retired as Dean of the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City, shared a story at Sewanee on one occasion:
Once upon a time I had a young friend named Philip. Philip was born with Downs Syndrome. He was a pleasant child—happy, it seemed—but increasingly aware of the difference between himself and other children. Philip went to Sunday school at the Methodist church. His teacher, also a friend of mine, taught the third-grade class with Philip and nine other eight-year-old boys and girls.
You know eight-year-olds. And Philip, with his differences, was not readily accepted. But my teacher friend was creative, and he helped the group of eight-year-olds. They learned, they laughed, they played together. And they really cared about one another, even though eight-year-olds don’t say they care about one another out loud. My friend could see it. He knew it. He also knew that Philip was not really a part of that group. Philip did not choose nor did he want to be different. He just was. And that was just the way things were.
My friend had a marvelous idea for his class the Sunday after Easter. You know those things that pantyhose come in—the containers that look like great big eggs—my friend had collected ten of them. The children loved it when he brought them into the room. Each child was to get one. It was a beautiful spring day, and the assignment was for each child to go outside, find a symbol for new life, put it into the egg, and bring it back to the classroom. They would then open and share their new life symbols and surprises one by one.
It was glorious. It was confusing. It was wild. They ran all around the church grounds, gathered their symbols, and returned to the classroom. They put all the eggs on a table, and then the teacher began to open them. All the children stood around the table.
He opened one, and there was a flower, and they ooh-ed and aah-ed. He opened another, and there was a little butterfly. “Beautiful,” the girls all said, since it is hard for eight-year-old boys to say “beautiful.” He opened another, and there was a rock. And as third-graders will, some laughed, and some said, “That’s crazy! How’s a rock supposed to be like new life?” But the smart little boy who’d found it spoke up: “That’s mine. And I knew all of you would get flowers and buds and leaves and butterflies and stuff like that. So I got a rock because I wanted to be different. And for me, that’s new life.” They all laughed.
My friend said something to himself about the profundity of eight-year-olds and opened the next one. There was nothing there. The other children, as eight-year-olds will, said, “That’s not fair—that’s stupid!—somebody didn’t do right.”
Then my friend felt a tug on his shirt, and he looked down. Philip was standing beside him. “It’s mine,” Philip said. “It’s mine.”
And the children said, “You don’t ever do things right, Philip. There’s nothing there!”
“I did so do it,” Philip said. “I did do it. It’s empty. The tomb is empty!”
There was silence, a very full silence. And for you people who don’t believe in miracles, I want to tell you that one happened that spring day. From that time on, it was different. Philip suddenly became a part of that group of eight-year-old children. They took him in. He was set free from the tomb of his differentness.
Philip died one summer. His family had known since the time he was born that he wouldn’t live out a full life span. Many other things had been wrong with his tiny body. And so, not long after, with an infection that most normal children could have quickly shrugged off, Philip died. The mystery simply enveloped him.
At the funeral, nine eight-year-old children marched up to the altar, not with flowers to cover over the stark reality of death. Nine eight-year-olds, with their Sunday school teacher, marched right up to that altar, and laid on it an empty egg—an empty, old, discarded pantyhose egg, a few saying softly, “The tomb is empty.”
Doubting Thomas, Philip, Blaise Pascal – they have all found one another in that other country.
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Isaiah 65:17-25 Psalm 118:1-2 & 14-24 Acts 10:34-43 Luke 24:1-12
It’s probably unusual to write an Easter meditation based on an Old Testament passage. But as I reviewed the assigned readings, Isaiah’s “Glorious New Creation” left me with the hope and joy that is to me, the meaning of Easter. There is a promise that the “voice of weeping shall no longer be heard nor the voice of crying”. We experience joy but we also experience sadness in our lives. We ourselves may have hardships or know family or friends experiencing illness, divorce, death. Tears have fallen and the sound of weeping has been heard. The good news is that the story does not end here as it did not end on the cross. The passage continues – “it shall come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear”. The promise of Easter is that despite the weeping only days before, there is now joy. Our Lord answers before we call, and he hears before we finish speaking. What a tremendous comfort as we face life’s challenges, discomforts, and fears. Since he has risen, we are heard, and our calls are answered. Think of the times in your life when you have been afraid or lost or alone and reached out for God’s peace and comfort. Isaiah’s passage assures us that He hears and He answers before we even ask. He is risen and is present for each of us – Thanks be to God.
Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24 Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16 1 Peter 4:1-8 Matthew 27:57-66
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance. I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where. And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time. – Excerpt from BURNT NORTON (No. 1 of ‘Four Quartets’) by T.S. Eliot
On Holy Saturday we are struck with the depth of suffering that our Lord has undertaken for us – and yet we hang in the balance of “what is to happen next?” Daily life trains us in learning to live between and betwixt gain and loss, pursuit and abandonment, hope and cynicism. On the first Saturday following the first Good Friday, I imagine that those close to Jesus found themselves caught, suspended, within the action and reaction of the old cycle. My intuition tells me that they felt they had nowhere to put their feet; no place to find a foothold in a world where Jesus was suddenly defeated, and gone. On the first Holy Saturday – there was most certainly an aroma of defeat in the air – as though the lying, mendacious, and scheming forces of this world had succeeded, again, in killing an innocent man for the sake of a misguided idealism. On the first Holy Saturday, no one could have known, what was to happen; how God would act – there was simply a hovering over that great echoing black void when tragedy strikes. Through the years I have come to cherish Holy Saturday within the parish church. The busyness of arranging a “successful” Holy Week becomes a chore, with well-meaning Christians slipping into imitating the anxiousness of Mary, rather than sitting and doodling with Mary at Jesus’ feet. Mysteriously our Holy Saturday devotion gives a brief respite from a delicious sense of accomplishment and “works righteousness”; a moment to exhale with the parish faithful – the altar guild, the choirs, the flower guilds – and sit quietly amid the ruins and desolation of an innocent life given for the guilty. A moment to give thanks that there is a place for holy powerlessness in the midst of a world gone mad for power; a pause from the sad continuation of the weak forever pulling down the strong.
The one day of His absence; and the day of our waiting at the “still point of the turning world.”
Each of the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, John—has his own way of framing the story of Good Friday. Each one wants to convince us that the crucifixion of Jesus is the most important thing that has ever happened and that it reveals the true destiny of humanity and creation. Mark and Matthew, for example, have one and the same saying: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is a shriek of abandonment. On the cross, Jesus experienced hell—the absence of God, the ultimate judgment—and he appeared to suffer defeat at the hands of the Evil One. Mark and Matthew want us to know that there is no hell that Jesus has not entered, no demon that he has not confronted, no abandonment or despair that he has not felt. The Gospel of John tells the same story in another way. John ends his story with Jesus saying: “It is finished.” Certainly, the words mean, “It is over”, “It is the end”. But for John, that saying means much more than that. It means that Jesus is not a victim. He is not crucified by mistake or just an unfortunate thing that happened to him on his way to Easter Sunday. It is on the cross that his work is completed. Therefore, the crucifixion is not something optional, only a passing episode to be noted briefly on our way to the resurrection. The resurrection finds its meaning from the crucifixion. The resurrection vindicates, verifies, confirms, authenticates the crucifixion. “It is finished” means that the Father and the Son together, in the power of the Spirit, are saying to us, the work that the Father gave the Son to accomplish is consummated, completed, and finished as he dies. There are many threads in John’s Gospel that are being tied together here in this word, “finished”. He has fulfilled the Scripture. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. To all who receive him, he has given power to become children of God. He has created the new community, the church, and he does this in full view of his enemy, the devil. Truly this saying is central to this faith we share because when Jesus said “It is finished,” he meant what he said. Thanks be to God.