The Peace Corps of God – Rev. Henry Brinton
The Peace Corps of God
December 16, 2012
In March of 1961, President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. In just five years, more than 15,000 volunteers were working in the field, the largest number in Peace Corps’ history.
Americans were drawn, in a powerful way, to this opportunity for service.
The Peace Corps turned 50 last year, and over the decades has been a largely positive force in the world. Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have joined the program, volunteering in 139 different countries. At both of the churches I have served here in Northern Virginia, a number of very active members have been veterans of the Peace Corps.
Volunteers help people to build better lives for themselves, assisting them with everything from technology to AIDS education. They meet new challenges with innovation, creativity, determination, and compassion. Their service around the world has become part of our nation’s story, and has helped to give the U.S. a positive image abroad.
So what would it mean for us to be a Peace Corps here at FPC? A Peace Corps for God?
One of the problems we face is that much of our society has a negative impression of the church. Earlier this year, a video went viral called “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.” In a rhyming monologue, the speaker criticized religious people for starting conflicts, building huge church buildings, and failing to feed the poor.
He had a point. In recent years, the Presbyterian Church has gotten more press coverage for its disagreements than for its agreements. The outsides of our church buildings are much more visible to the world than the good programs that happen inside. Our worship services attract bigger crowds than our hot meals programs.
If people get a bad impression of the church, I can understand why. It’s time for us to present ourselves differently — as a Peace Corps of God.
The apostle Paul was leaning in this direction when he wrote his letter to the church at Philippi. It was not a particularly good time for him, personally — in fact, he was writing from prison, having been arrested by the Romans. But he encouraged the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always,” telling them that “The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5).
Paul invites them to rejoice in the Lord — in the Lord Jesus Christ. Their focus was to be on Jesus, not on their church organization. “The Lord is near,” he insists — Christ has come, and Christ will come again. The closeness of Jesus Christ is something that Paul felt strongly, and that we can feel as well, especially as we celebrate his birth at Christmas.
The great gift of this season is the reminder that God chose to enter into the very middle of human life, into all of its conflicts, stresses, strains, and disappointments. God came to us in the form of Jesus, to show us a new way to conduct our lives and to treat one another. He came not as a conquering king but as a prince of peace. He arrived not with the strength of a Roman soldier but with the weakness of a newborn baby. He came into a world in which unspeakable violence happens — such as the killing of 27 children and adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.
In response to the coming of God in Jesus, Paul advises the Philippians to “let your gentleness be known to everyone” (v. 5). Let you gentleness be known … in the crowds at the shopping mall, in the lunch room at the high school, in rush-hour traffic on I-66, in the office when everyone is stressed by end-of-the-year deadlines, in political negotiations over the fiscal cliff.
I realize that gentleness is not a normal response to the stresses of modern life. But the birth of Jesus was not a normal way for God to act. The Peace Corps was not a normal government program when it was started in 1961.
Sometimes we have to try something new and move in a new direction. We have to use some innovation and creativity. That’s what Paul was challenging the Philippians to do, and what he is asking us to do as well. His words are a perfect message for us to hear today, especially as we receive new members and new church officers in our services of worship.
So how should we conduct ourselves as the Peace Corps of God? What is the behavior we should show the world as we serve together as church members, deacons, elders, and trustees?
Paul begins with “gentleness,” which is more literally translated by the word “forbearance,” which means a willingness to bear with one another. This is an attitude that does not seek retaliation, or insist on getting its own way. Gentleness suggests a willingness to compromise, and to show a bit of flexibility in the face of conflict.
It’s a quality that our elected leaders could use on the edge of the fiscal cliff. And that we can use here in the life of the church as well. When you run into someone you disagree with, don’t immediately go for the jugular. Instead, show some gentleness and bear with them. You might actually be able to change the mind of someone who isn’t on the defensive.
Paul also recommends that we “not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (v. 6). Our anxiety can be relieved, at least in part, by turning our concerns over to God. We do not have to take all the concerns of the world on our human shoulders, or feel that our personal problems have to be faced alone. “Let your requests be made known to God,” says Paul. God’s shoulders are much broader than ours.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “I got this.” It appears on posters and Internet memes. I saw it on a picture of a toddler trying to lift a barbell. And on another image of a person trying to put out a raging apartment fire with a bucket of water.
“Chill out … I got this.”
In truth, the only one who can say this honestly is the Lord God Almighty. When we make our requests to God, he says, “I got this” … and means it.
I’ve discovered this to be true at FPC, in the months since Jessica Tate finished her work here. I wasn’t sure how things would go without an associate pastor, but her departure has forced me to be far more trusting in the presence and the power of God. We’ve had challenges, for sure, including the weeks we spent worshiping in Fellowship Hall when the Sanctuary lights went haywire on us.
But God has worked through so many of you to get just enough light back in this room; to oversee our Sunday Express program for children; to offer a solid Christian Formation program for adults; and to keep our youth program running strong. Church attendance is up, your giving is strong, and we just finished a well-supported week of providing housing for the homeless.
Paul says, “Let your requests be made known to God,” and God say, “I got this.” Like the volunteers in the Peace Corps, members here at FPC have responded to challenges with innovation, creativity, determination and compassion.
When we turn our problems over to God, Paul says that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). Now this does not mean that everything becomes perfectly serene, with the complete absence of strife or hardship. Paul’s own life remained difficult, and he ended up being killed for his faith. No, this divine peace is a feeling of confident well-being, one that comes from being in a right relationship with God.
When we act as a Peace Corps of God, we are doing our best to remain connected to God through prayer and worship. We are, in the words of our mission statement, nurturing our lives of faith in Christ, extending hospitality and grace to all people, serving a world in need, and working for reconciliation among people of diverse perspectives.
This is not easy work. Nor is it free of strife or hardship. But it is effort that has a purpose, and that binds us close to God, to Jesus, and one another. To borrow the slogan of the Peace Corps, it’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
Jesus didn’t come to earth at Christmas to give us easy lives. Instead, he came to call us to follow him in lives that matter. That’s why we become members of this church. That’s why some become deacons, elders, and trustees. That’s why I’m happy every day — well, most days — to get up in the morning and come to FPC.
Each of us is called to serve in God’s Peace Corps, one that works for peace and reconciliation in this community and world. Our job is to focus on “whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,” whatever is excellent and worthy of praise (v. 8).
As we do this, we practice gentleness, bearing with one another in times of disagreement. We try not to worry about the future, but instead take all of our concerns to God. And we open our hearts to the peace of God, discovering the confident well-being that comes from a right relationship with the Lord.
With God at our side, there is nothing that can overcome us. And with Jesus close beside us, we have the guide we need to lead us in the path of peace. So let us put our worries aside, and instead rejoice in the Lord, now and always. Amen.