The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

SPIRITUAL EXCELLENCE: THE GOSPEL OF PEACE

Delivered 8/3/97
Text: Ephesians 6:10-17 (Phil. 4:4-9)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

One of the things that greets me upon my return to the office after a time away for meetings or vacation or whatever is always a pile of mail. This week, after a week away, there was the usual stack...much of it trash, but here and there, something of interest. One letter that caught my eye was this promotional piece for a new instructional video designed to help folks manage the pressures of life. It has the intriguing title of STRESS AT THE NAKED EDGE(1) and is modestly priced at just $119.95 for the 35-minute production (which is enough to stress me out right there). What got my attention was the sales pitch. It says:

STRESS-RELATED DISORDERS HAVE BEEN SHARPLY ESCALATING DURING THE PAST TWO DECADES. CONSIDER:

1. WORKERS COMPENSATION claims resulting from stress-related illnesses rose 700 percent in California during the 1980s.

2. UCLA'S HIGHER EDUCATION RESEARCH INSTITUTE, the oldest and most comprehensive compiler of America's assessments of student attitudes, reveals in its 1997 report a record number of highly stressed college freshmen. Nearly 30 percent reported frequent feelings of being overwhelmed by all they have to do. This number is up a sharp 4 points from 1996, more than 13 percent higher than in 1985.

3. A 1997 NORTHWESTERN NATIONAL LIFE INSURANCE SURVEY reports that 46 percent of American workers describe their jobs as highly stressful, double the rate in 1985.

4. STRESS MANAGEMENT has become a mantra of sorts, a household word across America since the 1970s when stress reduction programs began to explode on the landscape. Today there is scant evidence that the nation is more at peace with itself than before.

True. Very true. Peace is an illusive commodity. More mail - the current TIME magazine.(2) A very expensive three-page ad in the midst of news about terrorist attacks, murder and mayhem, Wall Street worries - on one page we find, "Depression hurts," followed on the next page by "Prozac can help." Finally, in tiny type on page three, three columns of legalese to warn about everything that can go WRONG if you take this drug which is supposed to make you feel as if everything is RIGHT and which the news on the other pages has already told you is NOT TRUE! It is a tough world out there.

Years ago there was the story of the young girl working so diligently at her homework that her father became curious and asked her what she was doing. "I'm writing a report on the condition of the world and how to bring peace," she replied.

"Isn't that a pretty big order for a young girl?" her father asked.

"Oh, no," she answered, "and don't worry. There are three of us in the class working on it!" Uh-huh.

Now we are confronted with the Apostle Paul's admonition to include in our spiritual armor - that equipment that will help us in our day-to-day struggles - some special footwear: "As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace."

What IS the gospel of peace? Legitimate question. After all, this Ephesians passage is the only place in all of scripture where we find that phrase. Of course, we find references to peace everywhere. According to the concordance, the word appears 258 times in the NRSV. Most of them have to do with peace as the absence of conflict between individuals or nations. But the ancient Hebrew word SHALOM which we translate as "peace" means more than that - it conveys a sense of wholeness, health, safety. It gives the deep sense that "God's in his heaven and all's right with the world." This is what Jesus meant in the Upper Room when he told the twelve, "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives."(3) In other words, not just the casual "Shalom" greeting that, even today, is the Middle Eastern equivalent of "Hello," but the deep reality that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, everything really is all right. That is why Paul, in his letter to the church at Philippi would describe it as the "peace that surpasses all understanding."

All right, now combine that with "gospel." As we learned early on in Sunday School, "gospel" means GOOD NEWS. And again, going back to earliest Sunday School, we learned that the gospel in a nutshell is found in the truth of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." The GOOD NEWS OF PEACE then is that the God who is in charge of this world also LOVES this world, and through Jesus, IS going to make things come out right. Paul says to equip yourself with whatever is necessary to grip that foundation.

One observation. Note that this talk of peace comes in the context of armor to protect us in battle. An oxymoron? Not really. The Roman soldier who is Paul's model for all this armor talk wore a heavy-soled sandal which had metal studs on the bottom for good footing on difficult terrain - uneven or slippery ground. Perhaps the reason the Apostle chose this metaphor is that without the stability, the solid foundation, the "both feet on the ground" of knowing that God is in control of this world, that God loves this world, and that God WILL make things come out right, our defenses are inadequate. "As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace."

Would you like a pair? Let me try to fashion some for you. These, after all, are NOT one-size-fits-all. That is why the scripture says, "...put on WHATEVER will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace." For one person, it will be one thing, for another, something else. Let me offer a list. No particular order. Just listen, and "if the shoe fits..."

If you want a sense of peace to stabilize your life, you will KEEP A POSITIVE OUTLOOK. In the Philippians passage where we find Paul's words about the "peace that surpasses all understanding," we find a command to REJOICE. Obviously, everything in life is NOT cause for rejoicing, but the message is, if we want this sense of peace in our lives, we had better accentuate the positive enough so that we have reason to rejoice.

That leads to a corollary: if we hope to maintain that positive outlook, we will remember that no matter how horrible, awful, no good, or miserable the situation becomes, "THIS TOO SHALL PASS." Some problem or concern that today seems a matter of life and death may next week either be completely forgotten or merit only a chuckle. Hard to see that when in the midst of the mess, but 20/20 hindsight will always put things into perspective.

That leads to a biblical reminder: "ALL THINGS WORK TOGETHER FOR GOOD FOR THOSE WHO LOVE GOD, WHO ARE CALLED ACCORDING TO HIS PURPOSE."(4) As I say, in the midst of the mess, that may be difficult to imagine. But later, looking back, be prepared to be amazed. No, everything that happens is not good, but one of the grand miracles of heaven is that, no matter how awful a situation might be, God can do wonderful things with it.

Another lesson - as stress-filled as life often is, thoughts hark back to words of wisdom from Rudyard Kipling who apparently understand stress a hundred years ago as well anyone today. Remember this?

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream--and not make dreams your master;
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
...

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run--
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!(5)

Grand advice. DO NOT GET RUFFLED. Tough to do, but one of the most valuable individuals in a crisis is that one who can provide what is called a "non-anxious presence." Keep your head.

Do not forget this: YOU CANNOT PLEASE EVERYBODY (which is one of the hardest lessons for a preacher to learn). I will not say therefore do not TRY - that is an over-reaction and throws the baby out with the bath water. But once you have tried, and still find yourself on the short end of somebody's satisfaction stick, move on. Neither the tears nor the trouble are worth it.

Centuries ago, Aesop told the fable of the miller, his son, and their donkey who were traveling to market.(6) They had not gone far when they overheard three women at a well. "Have you ever seen anything so strange! Two men are walking when they could ride. Why do people have donkeys?" Responding to the women, the miller quickly put his son on the back of the animal and continued on the journey.

Soon they met two men in the midst of a fierce debate. "I say the present generation shows no respect for its elders," cried the older man. Spying the miller and his son, he continued, "There, that proves what I am saying. The young, healthy lad rides while his old father is forced to walk." Immediately the father told his son to dismount, and he climbed on the animal's back.

They had not gone very far when they met a man and his wife walking down the road. "Look at that mean father," the woman exclaimed. "He rides while his little son has to walk."

Embarrassed, the miller took his son by the arm. "Come up here with me. We will both ride on the donkey." Together they rode toward the market.

Soon they met a group of men loading hay beside the road. "Shame on you," a fat man cried, "over-loading the poor donkey. "Why, the two of you are strong enough to carry that poor animal." Both the miller and his son quickly got off the animal and walked along until they found a large log. They tied the legs of the donkey together and slipped the log between the animal's legs. Then they attempted to carry it over the bridge that led to the market.

People on the other side of the bridge roared with laughter when they saw two men trying to carry a donkey. The noise so frightened the animal that he kicked loose and fell into the river and drowned.

A fun story with a very serious lesson. But the "fun" element is important in our lives. KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR. It was G. K. Chesterton who posed the question, "How is it that angels can fly?" The answer: "Because they take themselves so lightly!" Take your faith seriously and yourself lightly. That is important, if you want to soar with the eagles instead of trotting with the turkeys.

The twelve-step programs offer some good advice when they say LIVE IN THE MOMENT. Let tomorrow take care of itself. Jesus himself said, "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own."(7) Enjoy today, because you are not promised tomorrow anyway. TODAY is what you have - make the most of it.

One more. The clincher. PRAY. Keep the lines of communication open. "IN EVERYTHING BY PRAYER AND SUPPLICATION WITH THANKSGIVING LET YOUR REQUESTS BE MADE KNOWN TO GOD," says Paul. Making use of the "armor of God" metaphor, imagine this scene from some old movie about King Arthur and the Round Table: a squire keeps his round-the-clock vigil just prior to becoming a knight. With sword in hand, he kneels before the church altar and prays. He looks to God for strength and courage in all the battles to come. He arises from his knees with a sense of... peace.

Picture this - it is the middle of the night, and a violent storm blows up. The wind howls, the thunder cracks, the lightning flashes. A little child in her bed cringes beneath the covers, scared half to death. But she musters up just enough courage to run into mommy and daddy's room and crawl into bed with them. Now she knows she is safe. Let the wind roar and the thunder crash. Nothing can harm her. Snug and warm, she falls asleep.

For you and me, the peace of God is like that. Yes, we are in a world that is stress-filled, and seems to be getting more so every day. But we are invited to protect ourselves with the armor of God, and we wear shoes that give incredible stability - the good news of God's peace. When the going gets tough, remember who you are and WHOSE you are. In everything...in EVERYTHING...God is working for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. Believe it, "and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Let us pray.

O God, we echo the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.


O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

1. Gerald D. Sjule. Ph.D., Executive Producer, Jerdan Productions, 92 Corporate Park, Suite C524, Irvine, CA 92606

2. August 4, 1997

3. John 14:27

4. Romans 8:28

5. Rudyard Kipling, "If," via Internet

6. William R. White, Stories for Telling, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), pp. 74-75

7. Matthew 6:34

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