The Peace Project

A sermon based on John 14: 26-31
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 7, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

In the middle of July I preached a sermon about praying for peace and acting for peace. I mentioned our amazing interfaith community summer camp we do for children called Peace Village. And I noted that studying peace is not just for children but for the rest of us too. The sermon was, of course . . . brilliant . .. so I have no doubt you all remember it.
In case I am wrong, or some of you were not here, the title of the sermon was “Pray for Peace, Act for Peace.” And just like this morning we had this flag up here on the chancel. What’s wonderful to me looking back on that day, is not what I said, but that we prayed for peace and we acted for peace and not only did we have an incredibly successful Peace Village, but God has answered our prayers and our actions in unexpected and amazing ways with a peace project that starts today. I would go so far as to call it a very holy, very spiritual God-soaked happening and it gives me pause (actually takes my breath away).

I have a great deal of gratitude for God’s work in this church and this congregation’s part in it. I do not know if you all are aware that this church’s acts for peace on so many different levels has people in the community and even in the United Church of Christ talking about the work we do with God in the lead.

As I mentioned in that sermon in July peace – shalom–

includes the meaning fullness and well being. And as my theological dictionary points out ‘It’s more than the lack of war and points to full societal and personal well being, coupled with righteousness.’1

So our peace work includes all of the justice and love efforts we are engaged in to aim toward a world were all have enough and all are treated justly and with respect. I mentioned too in that sermon that our peace prayers and actions aim toward sharing in “the gift God wishes for us ALL: wholeness.”

Our efforts at wholeness, at peace and justice on many fronts– efforts for women, LGBTQ, People of Color, those in need, children and youth – all of it– is peace work. As are our efforts to help individuals find peace in their own lives.
So, as started to say, I have heard wonderful stories of our church being discussed in even other states and other countries. But nothing is more telling to me than when people in Knox County talk about the missions and ministries of First Congregational Church gratefully and respectfully. It is a powerful witness to God’s work and presence in this church. I have heard a number of people say something like “Oh, you are that church that is doing all that great work!” I hope you hear things like that too. I know Nancy and I do. It’s good stuff– and affirms our efforts.

Rev. Anna Woofenden, our newest member, who is up here with me today and will be officiating communion in a few moments is a dynamic minister with experience and enthusiasm for peace work and I truly believe the Holy Spirit sent Anna our way. She recently moved to the area with her wonderful husband Dr. David Howlett who is here today.

Rev. Woofenden contacted me before she even arrived in town because she heard our church was doing good peace and justice work. I love that. And if you read Friday’s paper or the recent church newsletter you know the story gets better. Anna and I met for the first time in person when she took me up on an offer to visit Peace Village this summer. And pretty quickly we began having discussions that led to mapping out ideas on how a church might intentionally bring the central ideas of Peace Village to adults, as well as youth and children in the church.

And it really does take my breath away to think how God’s presence in Anna’s contact and our meetings and all the work we have done so far as church on this. It is an obvious and dynamic answer to our praying for peace and acting for peace. The Holy Spirit led to Anna, church leaders and me to put together “The Peace Project,” an October to May effort aimed at bringing the ideas of Peace Village into the church and out into the community every month. We are calling them “Peace Sundays.” The idea is exciting and contagious. In very short order our wonderful Church Council and Personnel committee found a way for us to engage Anna as our first ever Visiting Pastor of Peace and Spirituality to work with me and the rest of this awesome congregation to bring the ideas of Peace Village to youth and adults, as well as to children –and not just those in the church but those out in the community.

So the Peace Project was born and today and I am very happy to say welcome to our first Peace Sunday. The church leadership, and Anna and I hope and pray the Peace Project will be effective– that God’s shalom will break in more through all of our efforts. It’s wonderful stuff. And I am so grateful to Anna, our lay leaders and really all of this church, and to the Holy Spirit for guiding this to come about.

I want to tell you a little bit more about it as we get underway. And I thought I’d better start with a quick refresher overview of Peace Village. It is a day camp for grade school children where we lovingly and carefully teach children about peace. We form a four day long camp community around the idea of peace. The days include lots of fun, games, crafts, song, and exploration of nature and peace stories from a number of faiths, but it also especially includes four classes that the campers attend every morning where they learn from caring adults and one another and creation about peace.

One of the classes we call “Peace within.” Jesus tells us to love God and others as our self. There are three parts to that (1) love God; (2) love others; and (3) love self. The love self parts means we need to desire and act toward our own well being. It may be the most difficult concept for modern American adults and even children to grapple with. “Peace Within” emphasizes centering, calming the mind and body, meditation, breathing, concentration, movement to make our self whole. In the language from Jesus in the reading the idea is help hearts to not be so troubled and afraid– to learn to be at peace deep down to our very soul. Today the primarily focus of Adult Forum and our afternoon event at Ariel Foundation Park is on this first of the four Peace Village concepts: “Peace Within.”

Working from self outward the second class we have we call “Peace With Others” which focuses on non-violent problem solving, role playing and peace advocacy to be in good relationship with other humans. A third class is called “Peace and Culture” where we consider and learn about responsible thinking, media literacy, compassionate communicating and discussions around types of oppression. The fourth class is global. At our Peace Village it is called “Peace and the Planet,” We learn to love what Christians understand as God in creation. We discuss and learn about have respect, care and concern for environment. Taking time to notice and to be in awe of creation is a big part of it, but also to be good caretakers of the planet.

I had a Lily Grant financed sabbatical in 2012 where I studied peace for six weeks one-on-one with Rev. Charles Busch the founder of Peace Village. Charles and I talked a lot about how the concepts taught at Peace Village would work great in a number for settings, for not just for children, but also for adults and youth. Church was one place Charles and I talked a lot about bringing the concepts to. So I really perked up when the conversations Anna and I had rather quickly led to that very idea.

So how are we going to bring those Peace Village concepts to church for the Peace Project? The idea we settled on is to create special peace-centered multi-part Sundays at the beginning of each month. Each Communion Sunday for at least the next eight months we plan to begin with a peace centered worship. That’s what we are in right now. The liturgy and music has been peace centered, and sermon today is more general in nature for this kick-off, but we plan to focus in the months ahead more on the month’s specific peace topic. Then we will have our fellowship hour. After that, we will have an interfaith friendly Adult Forum for youth and adults that presents the central Peace Village concept of the month (as I said today it is Peace Within). After the adult forum is over Peace Sunday will usually end with a special spiritual activity in the afternoon that is inter-generational, experiential, interfaith-friendly and engaged.

The Peace Project plan includes bringing peace events out of the church and into community during the month. This month we are bringing it out to Ariel Foundation Park today on Sunday, but we hope to try every so often to do it on a weekday, maybe here, maybe out and about. The thinking is that church members and people in the community could attend one or some or all of these offerings. The hope is to create peace-full opportunities in a variety of ways for a variety of people in a variety of places by bringing peace and spiritual practice opportunities to the community.

In our reading Jesus indicates that the Holy Spirit, God’s presence, is here on earth now to teach us and remind us of what Jesus taught. And in the story Jesus does this remarkable thing he says “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” As church, our ministries and our missions are done as the Body of Christ here now, leaving peace and giving peace, not as the world does but as Jesus does. We aim to do that every summer at Peace Village, and The Peace Project is aimed at doing that on month Peace Sundays.

In the reading Jesus words after he left and gave peace are “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Peace within, our focus the rest of today is about that, about spiritual practices that aim to un-trouble our hearts and calm our fears. Jesus’ claim after saying “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid”is this, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” Christian communal and individual spiritual practices can be understood to be efforts to opening up time and space to allow Christ to come to us, through the Holy Spirit swirling like wind throughout creation. That Wind is always here and it is understood in our faith tradition to be the very Breath of God and always only blows in one direction: toward peace . . . the well being of all which we understand Jesus leaves and gives to us.

Other faith traditions might not have that particular imagery, but all of them center on moving in the direction toward peace, the well being of all. We believe Jesus leaves us peace and gives us peace. Other traditions understand other sources for peace. All of them make efforts to help find peace within, peace in others, peace in community and peace on the planet.

This morning and the rest of the day and the week and the month and the year may we be open to finding peace within so that we may also help find peace in others, peace in the community and peace on the planet. God bless this first step of the journey.