Reflection for Sunday – May 22, 2022

Readings: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29; Revelations 21: 10-14, 22-23; John 14: 23-29 
Preacher: Sonja Livingston

The class I teach on Monday nights was struggling a few weeks ago. We’d reached that point in the semester—almost, but not quite, the end—where a break does not seem possible but is precisely what’s required. Besides managing their other classes, part-time jobs, relationships and looming uncertain futures, my undergraduates were dealing with war in Ukraine, the ongoing pandemic and a culture that seems increasingly pessimistic and unruly.

That week, half the class was out sick. I scanned a few of the faces present: the shy girl who hides behind her N-95 mask every week; the 80-year old auditor who tends to veer off topic; the Jane Austen aficionado with face-framing curls; the ambitious young man who does more than his share. Each looked exhausted and, in an already small class, even more exposed.

“Hold on,” I said and returned to my office and scoured it for treats. I found a small cactus, a pack of index cards, James Baldwin stickers, a chocolate bar, packets of instant oats and a decorative wooden boat painted the color of water. I emptied my in-basket, filled it with the strange collection and let the students choose. The auditor laid claim to the cactus. The shy girl was so excited by the index cards her smile extended beyond her mask. The ambitious young man chose the bottle-green boat. Which is how I’ll remember that class and so many of us over the past months. A bunch of boats bobbing on the water trying to stay afloat. 

Today’s Gospel reading offers comfort during hard times. Peace I leave with you, Jesus says. My peace I give unto you. Not as the world giveth, he continues. Everything is about to change. It’s no coincidence that Jesus offers peace as the trouble closes in. In preparing his disciples for his departure, Jesus speaks of a peace that transcends the peace bestowed by the physical world.

Peace is a funny thing. Many of us pray or work for it in the larger world while putting it on hold in our own lives. We’ll be at peace when Ukrainians are safe, when poverty is eradicated, when every child is well-fed, healthy and secure. The conditions required for peace are not always so lofty. I’m more likely to feel serene, for instance, when my husband remembers to wipe down the counter after making a sandwich or when traffic is easy on I-95. We are surely bolstered when these large-scale and minor conditions for peace are met, but because they hinge on the alignment of circumstance and the behavior of others, they represent the peace of the world.

We’re living through an era of great upheaval and I do not mean to minimize the massive and ongoing global and domestic crises when I suggest that the most damaging upheavals often occur in our own hearts. Jesus understood this. Let not your heart be troubled, he says in the face of looming pain and loss. Nor let it be afraid. Clinical psychologist and Merton apprentice, Jim Finley, says we find God’s peace “when we sink the taproot of our hearts in the presence of God that protects us from nothing, even as it unexplainably sustains us in all things.”

Finley reminds us that God does not always eradicate trouble. Even when He does, the absence of trouble cannot last. On the other hand, the awareness that God always and forever loves us can keep us afloat even and especially when the world seems to be coming undone. The key word in Finley’s quote is presence. We’ve all been present to the peace that transcends circumstance and the way it blows everything else away.

Presence not presents. We hear this expression at Christmas and birthdays. If God were throwing a party, he’d surely include the phrase on his invites. In fact, God is throwing a party. He requests our presence and we require His.

The quirky treats I shared with my students a few weeks ago were not specifically important. I could have put anything in that basket. The real gift was the interruption of our wild and collective rush toward the finish line, which so often finishes us. Our ability to stop everything, take a break and be preßsent to each other paradoxically allowed us to get back to work. The peace of Christ is like this. We have only to stop the unrelenting struggle against the waves and tip our troubled hearts in God’s direction to be filled.

Sonja Livingston
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