When Samuel came to Bethlehem, the city elders came to meet him. They were shaking with fear. “Do you come in peace?” they wanted to know. Good question. You see, Samuel was the prophet who anointed Saul as the first King of Israel. This was roughly a thousand years before Jesus came along. Samuel had been running the country for most of his life, tending the tribes of Israel like a shepherd. As he got older though, the people began insisting that he choose a king to rule over them. Samuel didn’t like the idea, and according to some of our scripture readings, God didn’t like it either. But eventually the two of them relented, and they decided to make Saul Israel’s first king. It didn’t work out very well though. Apparently, Saul’s principle qualifications for high office were that he was tall and handsome, and a good military leader. The arrangement was supposed to be that, while Saul would be king of Israel, he would still be under God’s authority. But it wasn’t long before Saul decided he could get by all on his own, thank you very much. He quickly got in the doghouse with God and God rejected him from being king.
Samuel, when he came to Bethlehem, was on a secret mission to find and anoint the second king of Israel, king David. Samuel was, essentially, plotting a coup, with God’s blessing, of course. The people, the city elders of Bethlehem, apparently knew of the conflict between king Saul and Samuel the prophet. They were rightly concerned about not getting in the middle of it. They were shaking with fear, we‘re told, and they wanted to know if Samuel came in peace.
This is all ancient history, for us. But like a lot of the stories in the Bible, it’s very much in keeping with current events. There are a lot of places in the world where people find themselves caught up in conflicts, not of their own making. Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Indonesia, Honduras, and Korea have all been in the news lately. The people of countries like these parade through our headlines every day. And when some military leader or terrorist or would be king shows up on their doorstep, they are right to shake with fear, and right to wonder. “Do you come in peace.”
It’s a good question. It’s an especially good question for Memorial Day. On this day, we celebrate our loved ones who have died, but we especially celebrate those who have died serving our country during times of war. These are people who have given their lives to protect our nation; often unsung heroes, often average people just doing the jobs our leaders have called them to do, so that the rest of us can live in a safe and secure country.
People like these deserve a lot of credit for the mighty nation we have grown into. They have helped us project American power into all corners of the world. But when the people of the world ask us, “Do you come in peace?” how do we answer that question? Did you know, in the history of our country, some two hundred and forty-three years now, there have only been twenty years altogether during which we have not been at war somewhere. The history of the human race is hardly any better. According to some historians, there have only been a small handful of years when people have not been at war somewhere. And very often, when we fight, we say that we are fighting for the sake of making peace. But considering how often we are in conflict, making peace doesn’t seem to be something we’re very good at.
Peace is a hard thing for people. Most of us, most of the time, would just like to be left alone to live our lives. But there are always people around who wants more than their fair share of wealth, power, control, and authority over others. There’s always someone who thinks that compromise is weakness, and that safety and security can only be assured only by the force of arms. War is sometimes necessary. But we do not glorify war, and whatever else it may be, it is always a failure of peace.
There are plenty of examples. I think of Israel and Palestine, who are forever at odds with one another. How many efforts to broker peace in the Middle East have we witnessed in our lives? Every president I can remember has come in thinking he knows how to bring the people together om the Middle East, only to watch his efforts fail. The problem is, people don’t really want to be brought together, except on their own terms. That’s true everywhere, not just in the Holy land. Everyone says they want peace, but peace isn’t what they want most. And until peace is what we want most, we won’t have peace. Until peace is something people are willing to make sacrifices for, we won’t have peace.
When it comes to peace, all of the great spiritual masters, all of them, say essentially the same thing. Peace outside of us begins with peace inside of us. The conflict and turmoil we see around us in the world is a perfect reflection of the conflict and turmoil that boils around inside our own heads and hearts. So, if we really care about peace, it’s not enough to work from the outside in. We have to work from the inside out as well.
But this is not something everybody wants to do. I was poking around the internet while I was working on this sermon. I typed into Google, “Why is peace so difficult for people?” I knew Google would know if anyone did. In my search, I came across one website that just blew me away. Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. It started off with “Peace is boring.” Nobody wants peace. Peace is what happens when you’re asleep, or comatose or dead. He went on to make a long case about how much people like to be stirred up; how much we like to be engaged in the turmoil and chaos of life.
Well, that’s one opinion. I personally think we’re plenty engaged in the turmoil and chaos of life without going to look for more. I think that those of us who are people of faith are more often looking for a center of peace within us. That’s the kind of peace we’re talking about. Not the kind that is boring, but the kind that stays centered within the chaos and turmoil.
One of my favorite illustrations comes from a book called, “A Wardrobe from the King,” by Berit Kjos. He tells the story of a man who was looking for a beautiful image of peace. He sponsored an art competition for which hundreds of submissions were made from all over. They revealed the artworks gradually. There were lots of pictures of peaceful scenes, meadows, small animals and such. But the winning picture was of an incredible powerful waterfall, cascading down a rocky cliff. There were stormy gray clouds threatening to explode with lightning, wind and rain. In the midst of the thundering noises and bitter chill, there was one spindly little tree clung to the rocks at the edge of the falls and thrust it’s branches just beyond the wild waters. And on one of its branches, a little bird had built a nest and was sitting content and undisturbed in her stormy surroundings, she rested on her eggs with her eyes closed.
This is the kind of peace that Jesus was talking about when he said, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. So therefore, do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Bear in mind the life of the man who spoke those words. Bear in mind the conflict, and the turmoil, and the chaos, and the ultimate crucifixion of his life and ministry. And yet that was the peace in which he lived, and that is the peace he commends to us. Not a freedom from turmoil, but a centeredness in the midst of it. Tremendously important.
I encourage all of us to seek out that kind of peace; to seek it out in prayer and meditation, to seek it out by knowingly bringing the spirit of God into your life and into all the things you do on God’s behalf.
There’s one woman who had a really interesting idea about how to do that, and in closing I’d like to share with you a poem that she wrote. This is a poem by Judyth Hill, and it’s called, Wage Peace.
Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breathe out whole buildings and flocks of red wing
Breathe in terrorists
and breathe out sleeping children and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion
and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening:
hear sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools:
flower seeds, clothespins, clean rivers.
learn the word thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief as the out breath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Don’t wait another minute.
Wage peace. My prayer for you, for all of us, is that we can be people of peace. In the midst of all the chaos and turmoil, all the disagreements, all the confusion … Wage peace.