Lavender Scented Peace

“I’m out of lavender” has become code I use with the senior pastor for “this is stressing me out”. Somehow, the advent week of “peace” seems to be the most stressful, even when we intentionally mislabel our candles (those of you aware of liturgy may have noticed that we flipped the love and peace candles at Third Church this year). Smelling lavender may cue our senses to relax, but it isn’t really peace. In ministry, especially during times of transition, avoidance can often masquerade as peace. Real peace comes from clarity in relationships. For example, the written policies should match the actual practices. These policies and practices should model justice and love. We were in the middle of revising some policies when I wrote this sermon in 2018 so it was a cathartic moment to talk about stress/anxiety over policy/procedure and its relationship to peace.

Revising church policy and procedures may seem like a small step in establishing peace but it is important. Being in right relationships with one another is how we go about creating peace. Even the beauty queen cliche of wishing for world peace starts somewhere. It starts with practical relationship goals and building a better world by starting with the people nearest you. For my context, that sometimes means that we stop avoiding the difficult conversations and find ways to have open and honest dialogue in a loving way where everyone feels safe to express themselves. Repentance and forgiveness and most importantly love (for self and neighbor) are needed for establishing peace. Especially in advent, we work for peace by working for policies that are just and fair (and if there is a bias in the system, it should be biased to help the poor and oppressed).

And I don’t think church policies and practices are the only ones that should model justice and love…

The following is the “peace” sermon from 2018 at Third Presbyterian Church:

Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)

40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.

I recently read, “Love Heals” by Becca Stevens.  She is an Episcopal priest and founder of Thistle farms.  Thistle farms “produces candles and body-care products and operates a café and artisan studio under the motto, of course, Love heals…[they] make products that [are] healing for the earth and our bodies…[1]”  I’ve tried a couple of their healing oils and lotions and they are lovely.  However, there isn’t enough lavender oil infused calming hand cream to bring peace to my mind when John says, “we need to find some clarity on this matter”. 

He means well, but finding clarity sometimes means an afternoon of digging through old emails, rummaging through files and finding the sticky note on the session minutes.  Only after all of these items are assembled and put on John’s desk do I feel peace, deep peace.  It is the kind of peace that comes only after hard work: peace in having a plan for moving forward.  It is the kind of peace that feels like everything is right with the world or at least everything is right in the Third Church office filing cabinet.  And there is calm if only for a moment while I sip thistle tea and savor the peace in my soul.

The second advent candle is traditionally labeled peace.  But the peace that advent brings is much bigger than having a clean desk and clarity on church functions.  And the peace that advent brings comes with a bigger challenge than cleaning up the budget.  The second Sunday in advent calls us to repentance and forgiveness in order to bring about true peace. 

Hear these words from Mark 1:1-8: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you withwater; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This passage in Mark calls us to be counter cultural.  In a world that is celebrating shopping season and making sure that Christmas celebrations are worthy of Instagram and #blessed, #homefortheholidays, #prefectdinner, #happyfamily, Christians are waiting for the coming Messiah and preparing the way by repenting and forgiving.  Our preparations for the prince of peace are not about cookies and holiday décor but about mending relationships with God and each other, so that when Christ comes we will be doing the work he has called us to do, the hard work of reconciliation and peacemaking.

William Stringfellow (1928-1985), an America lawyer and social critic, wrote “Advent as a Penitential Season”.  In this devotional essay he says that tradition has made John the Baptist an advent figure so “clues to the meaning of the first coming of Christ may be found in the Baptist’s preaching.” John is a voice in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  According to Matthew’s gospel, when John the Baptist is imprisoned, “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).  And later, when Jesus charges his disciples, he tells them to preach the same message.” [2]

John the Baptist’s message is the sentiment of Advent: repent, forgive and live in peace.

John’s words ring true today for all of us in the wilderness waiting for Christ to come again.

Stringfellow asserts that if we are looking for Christ to come again, we are living in the second advent.  He writes, “In the first Advent, Christ the Lord comes into the world, in the next Advent, Christ the Lord comes as Judge of the world and of all the world’s thrones and pretenders, sovereignties and dominions, principalities and authorities, presidencies and regimes, in vindication of his lordship and the reign of the Word of God in history.  This is the truth, which the world hates, which biblical people (repentant people) bare and by which they live as the church in the world in the time between two advents.”[3]

For us, who are living between the two advents, we must be preparing, not just in this season, but also as a continuous part of our Christian life.  The work of repentance that John the Baptist calls us to is an everyday work. 

Preparing for judgment of the world seems like an insurmountable task.  I don’t think there is enough lavender oil infused calming hand cream to go around.  

Unfortunately, there isn’t a perfect blend of oil to heal the sin sick world.  There isn’t a perfect prayer that will fill our hearts with peace and calm.  There isn’t a bible verse to say over the injured to make them well.  Scented lotion and bible journaling can help but there isn’t a quick fix for peace.  It will happen, but slowly and over time, as we practice repentance and forgiveness in loving relationships with God and each other. 

Love heals, is the motto for Thistle Farms and the title of Becca Stevens book I motioned earlier.  Just in case you thought Becca was writing about peace and love while sipping tea and smelling lavender, I can assure you that most days she is not.  The work that she is doing is difficult.  Thistle Farms is much more than a store and café; it is a place for women who have escaped sex trafficking to find healing, hope and home.  These are women who have some real healing to do and for them (and for us) forgiveness is an important part of finally finding some peace.

Becca Stevens writes, “Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we forget or that we don’t hold one another accountable.  It means that we can pray for the other person without sarcasm in our hearts and that we no longer think of the one who has wronged us as our enemy.  This, like most of the way of healing, is easier said than done.”[4] 

She writes about how she forgave a man who had abused her for many of her childhood years, “…somewhere along the way, I forgave him.  The steps were not linear, and I can’t pinpoint when it happened.  What I know is that in the act of forgiving, … my heart, and it turned back into a place where something could grow.[5]” 

As difficult as it was to forgive him, she has found that sometimes that the most difficult forgiveness we can offer is to ourselves, but it is the most rewarding.  “We know what our secrets are; we know everything we have done and everything we have left undone.  When we can’t forgive ourselves, we stay sick, and those things keep us living in shame.” 

Sin, hurt, resentment are heavy weights that trap us from being well, being in right relationship with God and each other, living in peace and producing good fruit.  So we must repent, and give (as well as receive) forgiveness, in order to live in peace.

 Thankfully, we serve a God who is slow to anger and quick to forgiveness.  But our perception of quick and slow is different than God’s, so we must be advent people.  We must be about the work of forgiveness as we wait for the coming of the Prince of Peace.

Hear the word of God in 2Peter 3: 8-16

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. [pause]

Waiting, hoping, forgiving, and working for peace are part of the spiritual practices of the people of God.  If we want peace, real peace, we need to repent and forgive.  This is not an easy task, but can be done as we take small steps toward the kingdom of heaven. 

Here are 7 practical steps to take towards forgiveness from Becca Stevens. 

  1. Decide one thing [not 10] you need to forgive.
  2. Pray for the thing (or person) that holds you in bondage.
  3. Take a practical step that will help you forgive, such as writing a letter or stetting up a time to talk to a pastor or counselor.
  4. Imagine what it might be like to have forgiven that person or thing.
  5. Picture what amends (atoning) might look like for you to feel forgiven or to forgive.
  6. Pray again for the obstacles holding you back from forgiving yourself or others.
  7. Start again the next day.[6]

Let us pray: Prince of Peace, Anoint our heads with the balm of peace, and set us on the right path.  Give us courage to get back up when we stumble.  Give us the eyes to see your hand at work in the world around us.  Teach us to pray for others even in our own suffering.  Show us how to love again from the deepest part of our hearts and with our whole begins.  Amen.[7]

Commission and Blessing: Therefore, beloved, as our brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him: While you are waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ, work to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish, always thankful for the patience of our Lord. (Based on 2 Peter 3:14-15)[8]

[1] Love Heals page 192

[2]Watch for the light, readings for advent and Christmas pages 103-104

[3] Watch for the light, readings for advent and Christmas page 106

[4] love heals page 137

[5] love heals page 138

[6] Love Heals pages 142-143

[7] Love Heals page 152-153 adapted

[8] Season of Light and Hope by Blair Gilmer Meeks

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