You may listen to Mother Takacs' sermon here.
This is a peaceful place. This space, right here, within these magnificent, dark walls, is a place of peace. You don’t have to be a mystic or a great spiritual guru to feel that this is a holy place; in fact, this is often the first thing that people say when they see the church for the first time. It’s so beautiful in here; it’s so peaceful. I feel God here, I feel safe here. When you step into the nave and hear the gentle thump and shudder of the doors as they shut behind you, you can feel a presence in here with you, and suddenly the traffic and the noise and the busy-ness of the world seem a million miles away. And you know that the presence you feel is the very presence of the Almighty, made palpable by the patina of prayers that have been spoken and sung here for a hundred and sixty years, prayers that have soaked into the wood and the mortar, prayers that make the very stones themselves seem to hum with life. This is the holy space T. S. Eliot speaks of in his poem Little Gidding, when he reminds us: “You are not here to verify,/Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity/Or carry report. You are here to kneel/Where prayer has been valid.” You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid, where holiness has been beautiful, where people have known peace.
And isn’t that exactly what we long for? To know a place of peace? We come to this place because it is a refuge, because the state of our lives often leaves us seeking sanctuary. We live, many of us, in a constant state of war; we are at war with our schedules, at war with the incessant barrage of information that assaults our brains. We are at war with our waistlines, our bank accounts, our impulses. We are at war with those voices in our head that tell us we will never be good enough, that we are no longer useful, that we are unloved, unworthy, and alone. We war against cancer, against unemployment, against wrinkles, aging, death.
And in those moments when we are blessed enough to find a grace-filled way to calm the chaos in our lives, we are always reminded that there is still plenty of chaos in the rest of the world. There are protesters slaughtered in Syria, gay men murdered in Uganda, children starving in Somalia, innocents shot in Philadelphia. There is a 22% unemployment rate in Spain, the constant threat of riots in Greece, a vitriolic election process in America. There is certainly enough turmoil in this world to make us yearn desperately for a place where we can feel God’s mighty arm wrapped around us, holding us and keeping us safe. There is enough cruelty and injustice and anguish in the world to make all of us cry out to the Lord, in the words of today’s collect, “Almighty God, in our time grant us your peace.” In our time, please God, grant us your peace, and in the meantime, give us this place where prayer has been valid and peace is present.
I wonder if that is what this poor, sick, desperate man from Capernaum felt when he entered the synagogue on that Sabbath morning. He must have lived a life of torture, tormented every moment of every day, exhausted by the effort of continuously fighting off the voices of those evil spirits that fed like parasites on his soul. Was it only in the synagogue that he was able to find some peace? Was it only when he stepped out of the sun into the cool, dark building, only when he heard the shuffle of his own sandals on the sandy stone floor, that those voices finally became muffled and still? Why else was he there, if not to find some measure of calm, to feel God’s arms wrapped around him, to sit for a few moments in the eye of the raging storm of his life?
But into this place of peace walks a new rabbi, accompanied by four shiny new disciples, fresh-faced and following. And instead of the predictable, pedantic words of the scribes, this new teacher, this Jesus, offers words of power, words spoken with real authority, that amaze and astound his listeners. And the peace that our poor, bedeviled man had been trying to wrap around himself like a blanket is suddenly and completely shredded. The dark voices within him that had always lain dormant in the shade of the synagogue suddenly erupt in protest, howling out of his mouth with words that are not his own: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” His peace is shattered; the chaos of his life has returned with the sudden ferocity of a storm whipping up across the Sea of Galilee. He finds himself not wrapped in the protective arms of God but facing down the fist of this Jesus of Nazareth, whose arm stretches out against the devils who dare to speak his name. “Be silent!” Jesus commands, or, more accurately, “Shut up! Put a muzzle on it. And come. Out. Of. Him.” And this poor, fraught man, who had come to the synagogue only to find some measure of peace, is suddenly in the middle of a war, as the powers of good and evil battle in his very body, as he feels the demons torn out of him, screaming their pain and frustration out of his mouth, sending him into convulsions as they fight to keep their hooks in him.
And then, just as quickly as they had risen up, the spirits are gone. And the crowds are amazed at what they have seen, not least of all the man, who lies panting in a pool of sweat on the ground. Mark doesn’t tell us so, but I imagine people in the crowd helping him up, brushing him off, getting him a glass of cool water to drink. How do you feel? they ask him. Are they really gone? And looking up into the powerful, joyful, radiant face of Christ, the man whispers his answer hoarsely through a rough throat. Yes, he says. They are gone, and I feel…I feel…peace.
Do you think it’s possible that this is what God wants for us too? That part of the peace that we are offered in this place is not just a moment of reprieve from the voices of pain, anger, and fear that whisper war in our hearts but also the strength to face those destructive voices and be wholly rid of them? Do you think it’s possible that the peace God wants to give us is more rich, more complicated, more lasting than an occasional breath of calm? Do you think that maybe God loves us, loves you, too much to offer you anything less than real, transformative peace?
After reading this Gospel story, I do think so. As much as we love the idea of peace without risk, of a calm that effortlessly soaks into our souls like water seeping into cracks in the sidewalk, the truth is that peace is more work than that. Finding our peace involves facing down those dark voices that battle within us and telling them once and for all that they are unwelcome. And those voices will not go quietly. They will cry out again and again, fight us fiercely until we are thoroughly worn out. But we face these voices standing alongside Jesus Christ, the Holy One of God, who speaks for us when we have no voice, who stretches out his arm against the dark forces of this world when we have no strength and heals us when we think we are beyond all hope. Those voices that tell us that we are unlovable or good for nothing, that tempt us to eat more than we need or drink more than we should, that try to convince us that injustice will always reign on the earth, that tell us to be afraid, always to be afraid – those voices will be grow more and more muted until they are finally muzzled forever. For we have this promise: that the peace of Christ is ours to claim; it is our inheritance, the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that only the Son of God can give. This peace is an active, life-changing, real, redeeming force in the world that rebukes the powers of darkness and bathes all people in light.
So in this holy place, pray for that kind of peace. Pray for that kind of transformation, for you and for the world. Pray that God will call you here and send you out into the world in that peace, and grant you strength and courage to love and serve Him with gladness and singleness of heart. And carry with you this beautiful poetry from our own Hymnal: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod. And yet we pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”
Preached by Mtr. Erika Takacs
29 January 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia