Readings: Acts 16:9-15; Merger Poem (Judy Chicago); John 14:23-29
Listen to the sermon here
I remember a phrase my mother used to use when things were getting to be too much for her; when we were harping on at her, nagging her, disturbing her, being too loud or just generally annoying her, Mom would shout out to us, “Auk away and give my head peace!” As a kid, I used to think that that was just my Mom wanting us to behave, to go away or to be quiet, so that she could get some rest. But over the years I have come to understand that what my mother was really doing was something we all do from time, crying out in desperation for a little peace; the kind of peace that the world cannot give, the kind of peace that the world so desperately needs. The kind of peace that Jesus was talking about when he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace. Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful.”
I have come to believe that our lack of the peace of which Jesus speaks lies at the very heart of the lack of peace in the world. As I grew up I came to know up close and personal the kind of peace my mother longed for. Shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I packed my belongings into a backpack and boarded an airplane in Vancouver for a twelve-hour flight to Amsterdam. I’d been saving for about a year to raise the airfare and the eight hundred dollars in travellers’ cheques that was stuffed into a money belt around my waste. I desperately wanted to see the world and at the time, I actually believed the old tattered book that was stuffed into my daypack that I could indeed see Europe on $5.00 a day. By my reckoning $5.00 a day would buy me 160 days in Europe; just over 5 and a half months. Even if I allowed the odd extravagant day when I might spend $10.00 a day, I might be able to squeeze 5 months out of my $800.00 dollars, which along with my secret weapon should allow me to travel about Europe for at least a year. My secret weapon, was none other than my birth, because as a British citizen I am entitled to work anywhere in the European Common Market. I figured working a few weeks here and there ought to allow me the luxury of travelling about Europe for at least a year at which time I would head back to Vancouver to visit my family and work for a few months in order to head back out on the road, this time maybe to Australia or New Zealand. I had of course informed my friends of my grand plan. But to give my Mother a little peace, I told my parents that I’d probably be gone for between three to six months or so. I was full of bravado as I boarded the plane that would fly overnight over Canada’s vast frozen North to arrive in Amsterdam.
Somewhere after about 8 hours in the air, I began to be afraid; very afraid indeed. What if they didn’t really speak English in Amsterdam? How was I going to find my way to the hotel I had booked? I’d decided that for my first night I’d be better off being a little extravagant, just until I got my bearings straight; besides the week before, I’d learned that the price had gone up at Youth Hostels to $8.00 per night, so, plan of $5.00 a day had been increased to $10.00 a day. So, I’d have to find a work sooner than I’d thought? I’d be out there on my own for a year, exploring all sorts of new place and having all sorts of exciting adventures. I didn’t talk to anyone on the plane. I’m an introvert; a room full of strangers makes me nervous. So a metal tube, hurtling through the air filled with strangers, terrified me. I kept myself to myself and quietly mulled over the fate which awaited me.
By the time the plane landed two hours late in Amsterdam, I was exhausted and terrified. I’d spent 14 hours imagining all sorts of horrible things and I was left hoping that the frightening customs officer would refuse to let me enter Holland and send me home on the next flight. When I finally reached the hotel, they told me I couldn’t check in until the afternoon. My backpack weighed a ton as I walked around the block, afraid to wander too far, encase I got lost, or run over by a cyclist I found a bench and sat down to watch the world go by. I remember getting very, very angry as I sat there on that bench. I mean what in the world were my parents thinking? I was barely eighteen years old, how could they let me go off on my own like this. I mean what did I know about the world? I was probably going to get myself killed? Why didn’t they stop me? What kind of crazy parents did I have? If only they’d talked some sense into me, I would be all alone in a strange place about to meet my fate at the hands of some unknown villain who would make off with my $800.00 and leave me to fend for my self on the streets of Amsterdam. I had never been so frightened in my entire life. So, I decided right there and then, that just as soon as I could check into the hotel, I’d call the airline and book the next flight home.
I was so tired when they finally let me into my room that I managed to sleep from three in the afternoon to about ten the next morning, when someone banging on my door advised me that check-out was 11:00 o’clock. I scrambled to get up and out and found myself wandering the narrow streets of Amsterdam, weighed down by a 30-pound back pack and a fear in my heart that made me too afraid to look anyone in the eye. What if someone said something to me? How do you say, “I don’t understand?” in Dutch? I quickly made my way toward a sign that was written in English, “Canal Tours: for 8 dollars.” I could tour the city of Amsterdam and see all the sights. I reasoned that if I took this tour I could safely sit and think about how to find an international phone so that I could phone a friend in Vancouver and get them to book me a flight home, then I’d hide out in Vancouver for a few months so as to avoid the same of having to tell people that I just could take being in Europe for more than a day. I managed to purchase a ticket for the Canal Tour with one of my travelers’ cheques. But not before receiving a scolding from the woman behind the counter who insisted that I should have exchanged the cheques at something called a Kiosk; I had no idea what she was talking about, nor did I care, how little change she gave me in return. I wasn’t going to be in this God-forsaken country for more than a few more hours, so I cared nothing about the exchange rates. The next tour was about to leave, so I tried to make my way down to the dock, someone grabbed me and told me that I couldn’t take my back-pack on the boat. I would have to leave it, but it would be perfectly safe with the others. What did I care; I was heading home soon, besides it was way too heavy. I left the backpack propped up behind some boxes, expecting never to see the stupid thing again.
I missed the boat, and had to wait for the next one. I was exhausted, angry and afraid. I was going have to get out of this country before I completely lost my mind. It was hot, it was dirty, it was so noisy, give me Vancouver any day. The Dutch were strange loud and they rushed everywhere. If one more person bumped into me I was going to belt them one. I could feel the tears begin to well up in me. A huge ball of fear was growing in my chest and I thought my heart was going to be crushed from the weight of it all. Even though I was furious with them for getting me into this mess, all I wanted to rush home to the safety of my parents’ arms. I begin to have second thoughts about leaving my backpack, if I was wearing it, I could just jump in the canal and put an end to this nonsense right away. And then I heard a voice. Someone was calling my name. “Dawn, Dawn, Dawn Hutchings is that you?”
I was terrified. Hearing voices in a strange land, where nobody knew me and I knew nobody. What was I going to do? Jump, quick, jump into the canal. The water is so dirty that you’ll die if any of it gets into your mouth. Jump! I can’t jump! I was too afraid of drowning to jump. As I stood frozen to the spot, I kept hearing my name. Then someone grabbed me by the shoulders, “She kept saying, “What are you doing here?”
When the shock of being touched penetrated my confusion, I grabbed her hands from my shoulders and she tried to embrace me, but I was having none of that. I thought I might have to toss her into the canal, in order to get away to safety. Then I saw her, really saw her and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Karen was a year a head of me in high school. I knew she was off studying in Germany; she’d been gone for about a year. Karen lived across the street from me. We could see one another from the safety of our living rooms and we often used to wave to one another. We weren’t really friends, but I feel into her arms anyway. Karen it seems was on her way home. She was catching a plane the next morning. She’d been at school in Germany for the past eight months. Before that she’d spent four months backpacking around Europe. The words came tumbling out of her. With each word I began to feel the tension in me ease just a little. Karen was so full of questions. Questions I stuttered to answer. The questions weren’t particular difficult ones, but I struggled to find the responses. How long had I been in Amsterdam? When did I arrive? Where was I staying? I managed to retrieve the details from the turmoil of my mind. But when Karen asked me, what I was doing in Amsterdam? I wanted to scream. How could I tell her that what I was doing in Amsterdam was plotting my escape from Amsterdam; from Europe, from travelling, from this nightmare that my life had descended into? I didn’t want to answer her. All I wanted in the world was a little peace. Just a little peace. Just peace. No more things to worry about. No more questions. At that moment, I would have said or done anything for a moments peace. I was lost in my fear. I couldn’t speak for fear of choking. I felt Karen’s arms around me. “Its ok Dawn.”
“You’re going to be ok.” I didn’t know if Karen was doing the talking or if the voice was coming from inside of me. It didn’t really matter. All I knew was that the peace was beginning to descend upon me. I don’t remember much of our conversation. I do remember the feeling though. The panic, the anxiety, the fear began to loosen their grip on me. I cried as Karen gently said my name over and over again. Slowly, ever so slowly, I began to remember. Each time Karen said my name, a new recollection of myself stilled the terror in me. We retrieved my backpack, walked back to Karen’s hotel, where I was able to secure a room where I slept for a few hours. I woke up, afraid knowing that the one person on the continent of Europe who knew me, would be leaving in the morning. I waited for the panic to set in, for the ball to begin to weigh heavily upon my chest, but all I could feel was the rhythm of my breathing. Karen and I met in the lobby, where she introduced me to a few of her friends and then we were off to dinner. I remember lots of conversation about how excited and afraid they all were when they first arrived. Most of them wanted to head home at some point or other and then they remembered just how hard they’d worked to get here and how silly they’d feel if they gave up and went home. Each story reminded me of who I was, how hard I’d worked, how excited I was, how much I wanted to see and do, to learn and to know.
As we walked back to the hotel, the city of Amsterdam took on a new glow. The streets became more and more interesting and I do mean interesting. By the time we reached the hotel, I began to recognize myself. I knew who I was, and why I was doing what I was doing. It was calm, peaceful, no longer afraid.
Back then I was convinced that God had sent Karen to meet me in Amsterdam. Back then my understanding of God, lead me to believe that God somehow knew what would happen to me in a strange land and so God manipulated Karen in such a way as to ensure that she would be at the right place at the right time to ease my fear. Today, the big father god in the sky no longer works his magic so that all the world revolves around me and my needs. But I do believe that God was involved in the peace that I found all those years ago in a strange and faraway land. I was so frightened that I couldn’t remember who I am. All too often our fears get the better of us because we forget who we are. When we are afraid, when anxiety fear and terror get the better of us, who we are often is lost to us. When we lose ourselves it has the effect of increasing our anxieties and our fear and the terror of being disconnected from who we are ensures that we will have no peace and without peace in ourselves we have no peace to offer the world. When we have no peace to offer the world all we have to give are our anxieties, our fears and our terror and there can be no peace in the world and without peace we have so much to fear. It is a viscous cycle that threatens to spiral into more anxiety, fear and terror as we lash out with anger, violence and ever expanding destruction that only spreads fear which results in more and more reasons for us to be afraid as the world is trapped in ever expanding circles of greed, violence, war and death.
So what is it that Jesus offers when he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; but the kind of peace I give you is not like the world’s peace. Don’t let your hearts be distressed; don’t be fearful.” I believe that there can be no peace in the world as long as we are afraid. I also believe that the memory of who we are calms our fear and that this is the only hope we have of ever finding any peace in the world. When I am afraid, I mean really afraid, I often forget who I am. The person that I am, is not angry, or greedy, or violent. But given enough anxiety, fear or terror, and I will react angrily. Take away the familiar, push me beyond my comfort zone, expose me to strange and foreign ways, and I will become anxious. Threaten me with poverty and my fear of poverty will inspire me to be greedy. Threaten me or the ones I love with violence, and my fear of losing my life or my loved ones will embolden me to resort to violence.
When the ground beneath our feet begins to shift it can cause us to forget who we are and unless we take a deep breath, we might just forget the Spirit that dwells in with and through us. Our God dwells in the midst of us. If we breathe deeply and feel the rhythm of the one who breathes in us we can begin to remember who we are. Sometimes, when we are confronted with someone who has forgotten who they are, a simple reminder of who they are is enough to help them find their feet again and once they can place their feet firmly upon the ground, they will begin to remember who they are. I am convinced that the peace we so long for in this world will only be realized when we find peace in ourselves. When we are grounded in who and what we were created to be, it quells our fear and we are better able to respond to the fears of others in ways that will help them to remember who they are. Fear is the enemy of peace.
Jesus knew this. Why else was he constantly telling people not to be afraid? There’s so much more I could say about our fears. I could go on and on about the ways in which fear separates us from ourselves, from one another and from God. I could tell you all about the definition of sin as that which separates us from ourselves, from one another and from God. But I’m afraid that that would take to long and as being afraid is the very thing that I want to avoid, let me just give you a little peace. Sit up, take a long slow breath….let it out….
Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to take a long slow breath when you are afraid? Panting, gasping, sometimes even holding your breath all have more in common with fear than breathing deeply. Perhaps our bodies really do know best because when we do breathe deeply it has a calming effect. Pay attention to your breathing. Really, I mean it pay attention to your breathing. Take a few moments, right here and right now and just breathe.
In and out. Don’t try to moderate your breath. Don’t try to slow it down and breathe more deeply. Just breathe……. Notice each breath….
Your body knows exactly what you need. So, the next time the anxiety and fear threatens to make you forget who you are, breathe, notice each breath, and slowly you will begin to remember who you are. Slowly, you will feel the presence of the One who lives and breathes in with and through you. Knowing who we are, will begin to free us from fear and enable us to free others from fear and before we know it peace will be breaking out in, with and through us. Let it be so, dear ones, let it be so. Amen.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you;
but the kind of peace I give you
is not like the world’s peace.
Don’t let your hearts be distressed;
don’t be fearful.
Remember who you are!
Let peace open you to reminding others who they are.
Let the peace of Christ
Soothe the fears of those you encounter.
Let the love of God calm the fear.
Let the breath of the Spirit
Replace fear with peace.
Now and always amen.
Merger Poem (The Dinner Party) by Judy Chicago
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind
And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth’s abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life’s creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth
And then everywhere will be called Eden once again