Comings & Goings
Part 2: “Go Now in Peace”
Charge is a common word and it’s used in a lot of different ways. One of the least common meanings is the one we use in the church, where it’s a solemn responsibility. Somebody usually gives a charge in a UCC ordination, and there’s a phrase that’s often used. It’s short, clever, and meaningful. It goes like this: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In other words, help ease the pain of the sick and the oppressed, and help those who have everything they ever dreamed of to see their responsibility toward the suffering.
This sort of describes two different ways of preaching. And in my current mini-sermon series based on the final verse of Psalm 121, I think of my two sermons along the lines of this charge—only in reverse: Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. When I think of the verse, The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore, the way we come in contains a radical welcome—a welcome that is challenging to many people, because when we say We welcome all, we really mean all. Of course, if you’re somebody who’s never felt welcome in church before, this is a comfort. But our sincere welcome seems to have driven away more people than it brings in, so I still think of last week’s sermon as being rather challenging.
Today’s sermon is more of a comfort. One of the most comforting things we do in church is sing the same song every week after the benediction—a song written by Don Besig and Nancy Price. Believe it or not, we’re actually known for this song in some circles. I was recently asked by a colleague if we still sing Go Now in Peace. And I happily told him that, “Yes, we still do.”
But as much as we look forward to it and as warm as it makes us feel inside, I think we take it for granted. We don’t think about the words often enough, and we might not even realize the depth of meaning contained in those words. So let’s take a look at them today—maybe not every word, but the most important ones.
Go now in peace; never be afraid; God will go with you each hour of every day.
Most of us are in many different places and around many different people throughout the week. When we part company with others, it might be such an indifferent situation that nothing gets said at all. Sometimes we say Goodbye. And more often than not these days, we say Have a nice day! But as sincerely as somebody might say this last one, it comes nowhere near the depth of meaning as what we say to one another at the close of worship.
Go now in peace. Peace is a big deal in the Bible. It’s one of the few words most of us know in Hebrew—shalom. But shalom means a great deal more than just the absence of conflict. It also means the presence of justice and salvation and righteousness. It’s what we mean when say wholeness. To be at peace doesn’t simply mean to be at rest; it means to be whole, or complete.
And since Jesus and Paul were both Jews, I think we can safely assume that when they use the word peace, they mean it in the Hebrew sense: Wholeness. That’s what Jesus is saying when he tells the disciples, “Peace I leave with you.” He’s leaving them something beyond the absence of war. He’s leaving them something they could never understand until he breathed it on them after the resurrection.
Paul opens just about all of his letters with a greeting of peace, and he closes many of them in the same way. In the last chapter of Philippians, he blesses his readers with peace that is beyond comprehension—and that is what we pray for one another in the opening words of our benediction response. Be at peace. Wherever you find yourself in the week to come, there will be nothing to fear, for God is with you and will not leave you.
When something new happens, we are often afraid, because we can’t control the unexpected. This is what happened in the opening of Luke’s gospel, when God was bringing an end to one age of the world and starting a new one with the birth of Jesus. But three times, when people were quaking in the boots with fear, the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.” This the angel said to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, to Mary the mother of our Lord, and to the shepherds who were the first to hear of the birth of Messiah.
So think about that as you sing Go now in peace to others. And think about it when you hear them singing it to you: When you’re thrown for a loop in the days to come, just as the angel spoke first to Mary and then to the shepherds, do not fear, for God is with you, and God is about to do a new thing in your life.
So go now in faith. This one we really take for granted. But we shouldn’t. For we are people of faith in an increasingly faithless world. Here in church we encounter people with trust, and we seek encouragement and reasons to believe. But we know that once we leave this sanctuary, we are surrounded by mistrust, by skepticism, by paranoia and conspiracy theories. A lot of people think this is the way they ought to be. Faith is outmoded. It’s cool to nurse doubts. But there’s a big difference between asking sincere questions—keeping our hearts and minds open to sincere answers—and using our questions to keep others at bay—or even arguing with people.
In one of my all-time favorite books—Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson—the old Congregational pastor who’s the main character had this advice against asking insincere questions: “You must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”
In other words, make sure your questions and your doubts come from you—not someone else. Don’t just repeat objections you hear from others. When we trust God and trust each other, then we have space to explore our questions together. Church may well be the only place where most of us have that freedom.
So a lot of us think that we come to church on Sundays to be recharged (there’s that word charge again), and we’re right. But we often forget that one of the main things that we’re recharging is our faith and trust—not just in God, but in our neighbors. It’s hard to leave a place on Sunday where generosity and kindness are the main values, and then be stingy and hateful toward those we encounter on Monday. We say, “Know God will guide you in all you do,” but we would have no idea what that even meant if we didn’t gather here to talk about what God’s guidance is. We come to church to find God in the Bible and in our brothers and sisters in Christ. We leave church saying with the psalmist, “This is God, who will be our Guide forever” [Ps. 48:14].
Of the three sections of our benediction response, there’s one that’s the most like the kind of charge I talked about at the beginning of this sermon. While what we believe might be hidden in our hearts as love for God, it is in loving—reaching out—to others that our faith is seen by the world. So go now in love. This sums up a lot of the Bible—especially the words of the Bible that encourage us, give us strength, inspire us.
There are hundreds of verses and passages I could refer to, of course, but nobody sums it up better than the Apostle John in his first letter—particularly the 4th chapter:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
There are many ways of defining what a Christian is. But from our point of view, if that definition doesn’t have love at its center, it simply doesn’t work. Our love for the invisible God must be shown in our love for our very visible neighbors. It’s at the center of the Old Testament law. It’s what Jesus lived and died for. It’s what the prophets and apostles have taught since time immemorial. It’s what we talk about, read about, sing about, and pray about in church. And it’s the charge with which we send one another out into the world every Sunday.
The song we sing to do it, believe it or not, is not without its controversy. There’s one line in there which, until recently, I wasn’t too fond of. I’m not the only one here who felt that way. And apparently we weren’t the only ones, because there’s at least one version out there that has changed the lyrics. And the words in question are these: God will be there, watching from above. I originally based this little sermon series on the final verse of Psalm 121, which says (once again), The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. This verse, which talks about our comings and goings, also implies that God watches over us. But this idea has also been used, not as a way of talking about a loving God, but of a punishing God. “Watch your step, because God is watching you!” you can easily imagine a sour-faced preacher telling their flock.
But there’s a bit of scripture I want for us to look at here that I think can transform our way of hearing these words—even if we had never given them a second thought before. And this passage is found in Genesis 16.
Remember that when Abraham and Sarah couldn’t have a child, Sarah told Abraham to have a child by the slave woman Hagar. Hagar had no say in the matter, and when she conceived and gave birth to Abraham’s son, Sarah decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all, and she mistreated Hagar, who had no choice but to run away. She went into the desert, where she and her son could have died of thirst or hunger or wild animal attack.
But when they’d reached the end of the road, when death was not just possible, but certain, God saved Hagar and Ishmael. And in this passage, Hagar does something that no one else in the Bible had done, before or since. She devises her own Name for God. She calls God El-Roy, which means God Saw Me.
I now think about that when I sing the words, “God will be there, watching from above.” God is the God who sees each one of us. If we’re arrogant or proud, then certainly the meaning behind these words might be perceived as a bit threatening. “I act like I’m better than everybody else, but God knows who I really am.” But for most of us, it’s important to us that God sees us when no one else notices. God cares for us when everyone else is indifferent. “I feel alone,” I might think, “but God is with me; God is watching over me.”
I hope you’ll give this sermon some thought from time to time—how the way we take our leave of each other in church on Sunday helps shape the week to come. When we see each other out in the world or leave a checkout counter or hang up the phone, we may have our polite ways of saying Bye. But here, we part company with words of blessing and with a charge that changes all of us. For each of us is giving a blessing. And each of us is receiving a blessing. We are people with these priorities—not just because it’s a religion we profess, but because it’s what we expect of each other. Go in peace, we say. Go in faith. Go in love.
—©2022 Sam L. Greening, Jr.