Moments of Peace

22 Dec

Moments of Peace
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on December 22, 2013

Two weeks ago, the Louisville area shut down due to snow. My Saturday event was rescheduled, and then church was canceled on Sunday (the service will be held next week instead). I found myself with something that I rarely get in this holiday season: time. And so my family seized the moment: music played, the tree was put up and decorated, stockings were hung, and dozens of cookies were made, iced, and (of course) eaten. It was calm, peaceful, and a wonderful respite.

As much as I love the concepts behind this holiday season: ideals of love, hope, giving, and gratitude, I am saddened to see what this time of year is becoming. Instead of giving, it is about receiving. Instead of gratitude, it is about getting the best deal. Instead of hope and love and family it is about getting what is mine, even if it means making someone else work on Thanksgiving so that I can get a good deal. One of these years, I want to start a Black Friday service, as they do at Unity Church -Unitarian in St. Paul. I also want to run the “Unplugging the Christmas Machine” curriculum. But not this year – too busy.

For many of us, this holiday season is just that: too busy. Potlucks, parties, gifts, decorating, and so much more. For a time of year when the ancient tradition is to turn inwards, to become reflective and contemplative as the days grow shorter and shorter, many of us seem to be putting in longer and longer hours and just don’t have time to reflect. For others, it is a sad and lonely time when we feel left out.  And as we get more and more stressed, it can be difficult to capture the joy we think we are supposed to be feeling right now.

Interestingly enough, that Saturday event that got rescheduled due to the snow addressed just this topic. I had been invited by a friend and colleague to speak to the local chapter of Church Women United, a racially, culturally, theologically inclusive Christian women’s movement, celebrating unity in diversity and working for a world of peace and justice. Their theme was “Song, Pray and Praise!” and my colleague told me I could preach on anything I wanted. I ended up choosing something from the Christian Scriptures, 1 Thessalonians chapter 5.

It had been a long time since I preached on the Christian Scriptures, but this passage just called to me. And although normally I would preach on the Solstice this time of year, I would like to share with you what I shared with the Church Women United. This passage has a lot of wisdom in it that is particularly relevant for finding and creating moments of peace in our lives.

Some background, first. The book of 1st Thessalonians is the actually the oldest book in the New Testament of the Christian Scriptures. Scholars date it to having been written in the year 51. Compare this to the Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the gospels, which was written in about the year 70. Plus, unlike all of the gospels, which are attributed to specific followers of Jesus but weren’t actually written by those followers, 1st Thessalonians is actually a letter written by Paul to the new church in Thessaloniki (today, the city of Salonica.)

Paul is an interesting and important character in the Christian Scriptures. There are many letters by him to various churches he founded, and many letters that SAY they are by him but aren’t really. He was born a Jew, and actually persecuted Christians before he had a very intense conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. After that, he went around starting churches and spreading the word about Jesus being the Lord and Savior.

The book of Acts, chapters 16-17, tell us that after a bad experience in Philippi, Paul and his friend Silas came to Thessaloniki to set up a congregation. As was Paul’s custom, he also visited the local Jewish synagogue and told them about this new group he was starting. They did not take too kindly to him, and Paul and Silas ended up having to leave Thessaloniki in the middle of the night. They went to Beroea, and then on to Athens.

In Athens, Paul sent another friend, Timothy, back to Thessaloniki to check on how the church was doing. When Timothy returned, it was with favorable news about the church in Thessaloniki. But Timothy also shared reports about the anxiety the church was dealing with over Paul’s failure to return to them. So Paul wrote 1st Thessalonians to address their anxiety and to encourage them in their endeavors. In the letter, Paul shares his ongoing concern for the new, struggling church and reinforces his original teachings about how the new Christians were to be in relationship with God. And then, most relevant to today, Paul talks about how the church members should behave towards one another, in their own spiritual lives, and in relationship to the larger community.

In chapter 5, verses 12-22, Paul lists 10 qualities that the members of this early Christian community should cultivate, divided up into three sections. In the first section, verses 12-15, Paul addresses how the church members should relate to each other. Respect each other and your leaders, he says. Be at peace among yourselves, “admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” And, make sure that none of you repays evil for evil, he says, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. This is how Paul tells the church to be with each other, suggestions that are just as true today as they were almost 2000 years ago.

In the last section, verses 19-22, Paul gives a bit of advice on how the church members should be in the world around them. Don’t stifle the work of the Spirit, Paul says. And pay attention – some of those around you have their finger on the pulse of the truth. But, don’t believe everything you hear: test everything; hold fast to what is good. And, just to make sure he doesn’t leave anything out, as his very last words in the letter he admonish them to “abstain from every form of evil.” Again, good advice today, just as it was so long ago.

But I really want to focus on the three pieces of advice he shares in verses 16-18: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.

This is quite a list. The folks in Thessaloniki were having a hard time – their leader had left them, they were being persecuted by others in the city. It was a crazy time. And check out what three of those pieces of advice are: rejoice, pray, and be thankful – always rejoice, pray, and be thankful.

These are personal instructions for how to develop a spiritual practice that will give us strength and sustenance in the midst of conflict and change, or even in the midst of a holiday season that is supposed to be about peace and instead has become a flurry of consumerism. These instructions from Paul are ways to nurture our spirits so that we might find peace within ourselves, even against the chaos of the world around us.

But I have a disagreement with Paul. I think he put these in the wrong order. I think the order should instead be that first, we adopt an attitude of gratitude. Second, we cultivate an active prayer life, and (finally) that with these will come the ability to experience great depths of joy.

First, give thanks. Having an “Attitude of gratitude” has become has become pretty popular in the past few years, and indeed the psychological benefits of gratitude are numerous. Being grateful has “been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners.” And, a 2011 study shows “that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked.” So it is no wonder that Paul would suggest that the Thessalonians work on their gratitude.

It is easy to add a practice of gratitude to our lives – in the evening, do a quick review of the day on your own or maybe at a family meal. Think of at least one, maybe even as many as 3 or 5 things, for which you are grateful. Write them down if you want, or not. I know one couple that was having difficulties in their marriage. So every night, before going to bed, each of them would write down in a notebook 3 things about the other person for which they had been grateful that day. They would put the notebooks somewhere so that their partner would read those three things first thing in the morning. They credit this practice with saving their marriage as they learned to appreciate each other at a deeper level, and they felt that appreciation from their partner. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude changes us, for the good.

I would like you to take a moment, right now, and think of one thing that you are grateful for this morning that you can share with someone else….Now turn to someone sitting near you and share that one thing you are grateful for.

In verse 17, Paul also says “Pray without ceasing.” Prayer is sometimes a loaded word for Unitarian Universalists, so I want you to feel free to interpret this one however it works best for you. Paul came from the Jewish tradition, and in Hebrew the word for prayer is tefilah, which is derived from another word that means “to judge oneself. This surprising word origin provides insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer. The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d.” When we pray without ceasing, we increase our awareness of the many ways the Spirit of Life is present in our lives. It deepens our relationship and experience of the divine. Another way to understand this recommendation is to practice mindfulness. As we become aware of something larger than us, a Higher Power perhaps, moment by moment, it helps to put things into perspective. The ultra-long line at the checkout becomes an opportunity to look, really look at all those around us, to think about how we are connected to each person in line, to the person who is doing the check-out, to the clerks in the back who stock the shelves, to the production line employees who package the items, and all the way back to those who created the materials for whatever it is we are buying. In this way, we connect with the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, and this puts our own rush into perspective. When we do this, we slow down, our anxiety decreases, and then we have even more to be thankful about!

I invite you now to take a moment in the spirit of prayer or meditation. In whatever way works best for you, take a moment to connect with or become aware of the divine, your higher power, the spirit of life and love…

And then the remaining instruction: “Rejoice always.” If we practice the other two: if we cultivate an attitude of gratitude and if we pray without ceasing, we are stretching the muscles that allow us to feel joy and happiness. Like a balloon being blown up, if we are constantly in prayer and gratitude, we will find ourselves able to hold more and more joy. It becomes a cycle: we deepen in our relationship with the Holy, and then will find many reasons to rejoice. Then we feel grateful and respond with prayer and praise. As we continue in this cycle, we also find ourselves focusing on the positive – we become optimistic and hopeful. We are more likely to feel moments of peace, event amidst the turmoil going on around us.

So I ask you now to give me an expression of joy. Perhaps a Huzzah! Or an Alleluia! or an Amen! or maybe throwing your arms into the air, or a big heavy sigh. Imagine yourself feeling a surge of joy…How would you express it?

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks” This is a timeless recipe for a spiritual practice that will sustain us through just about anything – a stressful holiday season, a changing culture, difficult times in the lives of our families, and so much more. It is a practice that can help us create those moments of peace that so many of us crave.

And so I invite us now to join in a song that is more of a chant, really. #388, Dona Nobis Pacem, Latin for “God give us Peace”. As we sing, I invite you to let your words become a prayer of gratitude, for this time that we have shared, for the beloved people around us, for the moments of peace we might find and create. Blessed Be.

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