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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

The Gift of Peace - 07/03/2016

When I was a kid growing up in the Chicago area, I quickly became used to seeing certain people on the street. Right on State Street was a street corner preacher guy who would climb up on top of a milk crate. He had a little portable microphone and would yell at people as they walked by about all the reasons they were going to hell. He scared me as a child. I don't think he's climbing up on that mild crate anymore, but he's still working that corner with his view of what it means that in Jesus' life, death and resurrection the Kingdom of God has come near. I learned to avoid making eye contact with him at an early age.

That was the way we were taught to respond to people on the street who appeared to be so very different than us. But even as a kid I struggled to just walk by the homeless people we encountered, as if they weren't there at all. The homeless are everywhere but they're more visible in the cities, and so by the time I returned to Chicago for seminary, my thoughts on how I responded to the homeless had changed quite a bit. I began carrying change and few granola bars around in my pocket.

But mostly I just came to believe it was really important to try to make eye contact with these people and offer  a blessing or hello or some nicety. I think it must be just heart wrenching to be on the streets and have thousands of people walk right by as if you were invisible, no matter the reason for your homelessness. So that became part of my personal little mission in the streets of Chicago … to make eye contact with people whose lives and choices I really didn't understand, but in spite of that, to somehow communicate “I see you. And I recognize that you are a child of God and you matter.”

When I returned to Chicago in 2011, I noticed right away that things had changed in one way … there are a lot more women … mothers on the street hoping to be seen, hoping to get some of our loose change. And there was one woman in particular who I saw pretty regularly down on the sidewalk by the Water Tower. She propped a little handwritten sign next to her. It was a piece of cardboard torn from a box and it said basically that she had been brought to this country by her husband who then left her and her children. She asked for help so she could feed them.

So anytime I knew I was going to be in that area, I tried to make sure I had a few extra dollars to give her. I would put the money in the paper cup she held in her hands. She'd say thank you, but she never looked at me. I knew she was Muslim. She wore a hijab, or head covering, and an abaya, a loose over-garment worn over clothing for modesty's sake when in public. So, one time I decided to take what felt like a big risk to me … when I put the money in her cup, I greeted her in Arabic. “As-salaam alaikum,” I said, which means “peace to you.”  When she heard me, she startled a little, looked up and caught my eyes. I prayed that I hadn't just insulted her – a non-Muslim speaking the traditional greeting used among Muslims. But she smiled and she said “alaikum salaam,” or “And to you peace as well.” I was nearly brought to tears to hear her say that, to bless me from that vulnerable and frightening position she was in. I don't think she knew it, but in that moment I was pretty sure that I was the one who received the bigger gift.

That is the spirit, I believe, of the peace Jesus talks about in today's Gospel story from Luke. The peace offered is a gift. Jesus instructs the 70 he sends out in pairs to offer a greeting of peace when they come to someone's home. If the peace is received, they will know that it is a good and safe place to stay. If it is not received, then they should move along – just as he said to James and John last week when they asked if they should pray for heaven to come down and consume the Samaritans who refused to welcome Jesus. No, just move on respectfully and without argument.

A few of us had a conversation earlier this week about this verse on offering peace. Listen to it again. “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” (10.5-6)  That may sound strange to our 21st century ears – if the person does not receive your peace, do not worry, “it will return to you.”

But this would have made a lot of sense in Jesus' day or among the people Luke was writing for some 80 or 90 years later. Things like an offering of peace were considered a tangible gift, as real and as valuable as a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers you might bring when coming to someone's home today.

And because it was so highly esteemed, it was equally as important and valuable and treasured to have that peace returned to you.

And since a greeting of peace is thought of in this way, it seemed possible that you could share this peace with someone and actually loose it if it was not returned. For that reason, Jesus assures the 70 that when they go into these places offering peace as representatives of Jesus, the one who is going about healing and teaching and upsetting the powers-that-be – the one who says he is sent by God – if the peace is not returned, they will still have that peace. They will not loose it. This is the peace of God, after all, that has come in the person of Jesus. It is a gift that can be shared with others endlessly, but will never run out.

These days, we may not consciously acknowledge this offering of peace as a tangible, material gift, but I believe we do so sub-consciously. This Gospel story also reminded me of another encounter I had with a homeless man 20 or so years ago, this time right here in our rural backyard. I was going up to the grocery in Marquette one evening on the way home from work and there was a man on the road with a sign asking for money. I didn't have any cash on me, so I bought him some groceries and handed him the bag of food on my way out of the parking lot. It had some bread and lunch meat in it, some water, a bag of chips and a couple of apples. When he took the bag from me, he began going through it and said he did not eat lunch meat or white bread or chips. It's not very healthy stuff, he said. He took the water and fruit and handed the rest back to me. He didn't say thank you or anything like that.

I was rather taken aback and somehow felt insulted. I've struggled with how I felt all these years. I felt guilty for being upset with the man for his response. I mean on one hand, I was trying to help, but on the other hand, I have my likes and dislikes too. I avoid certain foods for a number of reasons. Just because someone is homeless doesn't mean he or she doesn't have preferences or food allergies or whatever. And who was I anyway to assume I was such a bright light in this guy's day?

But this story from Luke this week gave me a clue to understanding the confusing emotional response I had because I realize that this desire to have some kind of gracious response to our offerings of peace or hospitality is deeply embedded in us. Sub-consciously we still have this cultural expectation that Jesus was addressing when he instructed the 70 to offer the gift of peace.

The weight of this cultural expectation – it's true importance and value – continues to show up in our liturgy. When we offer each other peace during our worship together, we are partaking in a most ancient of Christian liturgical rituals.

This ritual has changed over the centuries. While we share the peace with each other in the customary American fashion of shaking hands – sometimes a quick hug – this ritual started in the earliest gatherings of Jesus followers as the Kiss of Peace.

More than 1,600 years ago, a man called Theodore of Mopsuestia (Mop-SUE-stia) wrote, “Each of us gives the Kiss of Peace to the person next to him, and so in effect gives it to the whole assembly, because this act is an acknowledgment that we have all become the single body of Christ our Lord ... loving one another equally, supporting and helping one another, regarding the individual's needs as concerns of the community, sympathizing with one another's sorrows and sharing in one another's joys.” (Gail Ramshaw, Christian Worship, 100,000 Sundays of Symbols and Rituals, [Minneapolis, Fortress Press] 2009, 83.)

Just think of the power and hope and tangible love shown when we offer these words – “Peace be with you.” The deeper meaning is “God's peace is with you because the Kingdom of God has drawn near, I see you, I call you a child of God and my happiness and contentment in this world is directly tied to yours.”

So this greeting of peace, you see, is still quite weighted and tangible and we do well to know this – to be more fully aware of what it is when we say this to one another, whether that takes place here in our worship together;

…. or between spouses, as is the case with Ruth and Duke Snyder who renew their marriage vows among us this weekend in honor of their 50 years together;

… or when we speak it over tiny people like Violet Raven Dennis who we welcome in peace and love to our community of faith through the waters of baptism this holiday weekend;

… or a when we offer it to people we may never encounter again, like a forgotten Muslim mother on the streets of Chicago, or a less than gracious man hoping to be seen by those on the way to the grocery.

The Kingdom of God has drawn near to, my friends. Go offer this peace to the world and know that there is plenty of God's peace to go around and around and around again.

God's peace be with you. 


Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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