Blessed are the peacemakers,for they will be called children of God.–Matthew 5:9
I’ve always wanted to be a superhero. Whether it was Superman or Luke Skywalker, I wanted to be the person who would defeat evil and make it so that everyone else would be safe. These were some of the figures of my childhood who embodied “peace and justice,” who seemed to be the kinds of heroes that made peace happen. The world was black and white, and everything ultimately looked good, with no hints of grey, as a child.
I’ll never forget where I was on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Just months from graduating from seminary, I ran around the halls of the classroom building with everyone else trying to catch bits and pieces of the information that were coming in about the attack on the World Trade Center. This was unlike anything my generation had ever experienced: this was the destruction of security, and safety, and peace as we knew it. Innocence for me, naiveté of the world around us, that was now a thing of the past. The truth is, for the most part, America had lived in a seemingly safe bubble for years, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Pearl Harbor decades behind us.
The world around us has been dealing with the lack of real peace for years. The world of the Old and New Testaments is ripe with the sense of fear and unrest from the time of Noah through the days of Jesus. But in the midst of all of it, there was hope.
In our scripture today, from the Prophet Isaiah, with words later echoed by Jesus in Matthew:
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
For the people of Israel, Isaiah’s prophecy was one of a future hope; in Jesus’ words, the same scripture becomes a promise of a kingdom that Jesus brought, even though no one knew it yet. A kingdom that we live in but which is not yet fulfilled or complete.
These words of Isaiah are the stuff of Christmas! Whether you’ve grown up in the church and heard the words over and over again during Advent, or you’re a fan of Handel’s the Messiah, the words roll out a litany of who Jesus is and what he represents:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
I have to admit: that sounds great! I believe that Jesus is all of those things: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But a world where justice and righteousness exist forever? That sounds almost too good to be true when I watch the news today, when I see the headlines:
-Teen fatally shot by cops
-Suspect in Starbucks attack unfit to stand trial
-Woman gets fifteen years for child porn
-More bombing in the Gaza strip
-Family robbed in own driveway
None of these things fill me with hope. But we’re called to this kingdom, to this following Jesus, to being the children of God. We’re straining toward something different, but the violence is all we seem to know.
We think if the other guy has a gun, then we should have one, too. And if the other guy has a bigger gun, then we better get one, too. We take it nationally to the point where we think the only way to end a war is to blow them away first, to act proactively. But is that real peace or merely ending a conflict by being a bigger bully?
What if it’s supposed to look different?
Rick Love tells of a story that took place during the ongoing wars between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades, St. Francis of Assisi chose to seek out an interview with the sultan of Egypt, to share his faith in Jesus Christ with this Muslim. Recognizing that he was going as a sheep among wolves, he was soundly beaten and captured by the sultan’s men and dragged before the sultan himself.
“Why are you here?” the sultan demanded, knowing full well that it was foolishness for a Christian to make his way into Muslim territories alone.
“Muslims we shall never become,” Francis replied, “but we are messengers from God and we have come to share our faith with you.”
The sultan proved to be taken by their courage and straightforwardness, and gathered the Muslim advisors to hear Francis’ message. Francis focused on the good news of Jesus Christ and begged for the fighting to end; the advisors urged the sultan to behead Francis.
“These men want me to kill you,” the sultan said, “because that’s what our law demands. But I will ignore the law because it would hardly be fitting to respond that way given that you have come here to risk your lives in order to save my soul.”
The good monk was fed and hosted, and freed to come and go as he pleased within in Muslim territories. His freely offered kindness defused a situation that would have otherwise ended bloodily.
But one story won’t turn our hearts around, will it?
What about the story from World War I, told beautifully in the narrative film Joyeux Noel about the ceasefire between the Germans and the Allied forces? About the Germans, French, and Scottish soldiers who defied their superiors and declared that no guns would be fired on Christmas Eve, just because it was Christmas?
What about the mosque in Bon Air that extended its love toward the United Methodist church there on the anniversary of 9/11 by gathering at the UM church with flowers and attending that service? What about the UM response to the mosque by extending the same act of peace and love when various Muslim businesses were targeted several years later?
We understand what ‘not peace’ looks like, but too often we settle for avoiding conflict, or separating ourselves from situations where conflict might occur, or faking our happiness and peace, or simply preventing conflict by “conflict management” instead of actually making peace.
Maybe none of us will immediately impact the world for peace; maybe we’ll never lead a rally that actually changes political decision making.
But what if we would actually experience peace for ourselves? Maybe we should pursue it individually first, then corporately second, and maybe, just maybe, it will begin to run upstream to our community, to our nation, to the world.
Jesus urges his followers to pursue peace by taking the plank out of their own eye first and then working to help the person they are in conflict with to remove their speck (Matthew 7:3-5). Cornelius Plantinga says that this peace is not peace made but God-given shalom: “universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight; the way things out to be.”
It’s that kind of peace that makes us the children of God, and yet we can rarely wrap our minds around it, even for our individual relationships.
I’m reminded of my dad’s swimming coach mottos when I think about being peaceful. More often than not, when it’s about peace, I want the other person to act peaceful, and then (maybe) I’ll do what Jesus might do. That’s when the words come floating back from the pre-swim meet pep talks: “You can’t do anything about the person in the other lane, you can only control what happens in your lane, so do your best.”
But that requires me, you, us, to look at peace differently. To see peace differently before it ever gets to ‘not peace.’
There’s a parable about a town that relied on the tears of a very old dragon to make the crops grow, to renew the spring from which the the town’s water came. Each year on the day set aside as the town ‘celebration,’ a group of the strongest warriors would be gathered and feasted about town. Armed to the teeth and wearing the best armor they could afford, the group would venture into the forest to the dragon’s cave.
Down, down, down into the dragon’s lair, the men would go each year, and each year they would battle the dragon. Each year, they would harvest the dragon’s tears, and each year the dragon sent them back to their village broken and battered, a few warriors less than they had begun. The crops grew meager food and the well gave just enough to get by, but the means of the dragon’s tears allowed them to survive.
When the year had nearly been up, one young warrior-to-be stole away the night before, full of the town’s stories and jokes. Arriving by himself, he stole his way down to the dragon’s lair and softly began to speak from a cleft in a rock. The dragon rose up as if to strike quickly, but listened to the words of the young man. The humor and wit were evident, and the dragon settled back to listen.
Soon, the dragon was laughing, his belly shaking, and a lone tear stole its way to the corner of his eye. Shortly after, the ground began to be pelted by the giant tears of laughter rolling down the dragon’s cheeks, and the little vial that the young man had brought couldn’t hold all of the dragon’s tears.
That year, the crops grew bountifully, and the spring welled up with the purest water.
There were still tears, but this time, they were tears of joy.
I wonder if would see peace differently if we saw ourselves differently. If we saw each other differently.
Too often, we make a major mistake about peace: we think that we’re going to be able to accomplish it by ourselves.
Let’s be real: I’m not peaceful. I’m not wired to be peaceful. I want to lash out, strike first, make sure that I’m taken care of.
If I am peaceful AT ALL, it is because I recognize that I can’t do it on my own but have to trust God to help me grow into peace.
Paul writes to the church in Phillipi:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:6-9)
Do not be anxious? … Think about what is true, and noble, and right, and pure. And peace will be with you.
God’s peace, not your peace or my peace. Because we would be covered in prayer and like-minded with Jesus. Because we would focus on the good and the right and the pure.
What would that look like in your life?
What would happen if you banished the need to be justified? If you failed to show anger or irritation when someone slighted you? If you made the decision not to be that customer?
This week I found myself tempted twice to speak, and shockingly, chose silence. The first time, I was standing in line at Panera- the only one standing in line- and a woman walked up out of the blue and took her place… in front of me! There was no explanation that I could find to justify her ‘cutting’ me in line, and my first reaction was to say, “Um, excuse me, but I was here first.”
The second time, we were told to speak to a different worker at Walmart, then passed off to wait for a manager at Walmart, only to be told that she couldn’t help us at all! A key was with another manager, no it wasn’t, maybe it was… and finally, after ten or so minutes of watching my children try not to turn the checkout line of Walmart into a gymnasium, the first manager came back with the key. My growing frustration was only egged on by my children’s agitated state… I wanted to comment.
Neither situation is a big deal, right? Neither moment is earth shattering or terrible, but we have an expectation of how the world works: you don’t cut in line and the customer matters most of all!
There’s another story from war that Love tells, this time about a Turkish officer who led the attack on a village, and personally took over an Armenian home. He saw to it that the parents were killed and that the daughters were abused, even participating himself. Finally, the eldest daughter escaped and trained as a nurse. After a time, she found herself nursing in a recovery unit for Turkish officers, and recognized that officer in the midst of her responsibilities. He was dying, and over time, he was nursed back to health by that same woman. Upon hearing a doctor announce that he would’ve died without her care, the officer asked her, “We have met before, haven’t we?”
“Yes, we’ve met,” she replied.
“Why didn’t you kill me?”
“Because I am a follower of him who said, ‘Love your enemies.'”
The truth is that we take an attitude of vengeance into the way we drive our cars, the way we vote, and the way we interact with people all the time. And most of us have never faced a situation like that young woman.
But we long to be justified in all aspects of our lives, to be vindicated when we think we’re right, at great cost- including to our families, and our friends, and our coworkers.
We’re pretty selfish- we expect that other people recognize how special we are. We fail to see the way that our words and our actions hurt other people; we see the punch but don’t remember the words that ground the other person down for years that lead up to that fist flying. We say we’d never shoot someone else, but we cut the people we love down with our words all of the time. They’re the ones we know the best, and the ones we feel the least amount of fear from, so why not hang them out to dry?
If we take a good look at the Bible, we recognize that the first conflict occurred when Cain killed Abel. Family first, right? But it’s not actually the first ‘non-peace’ or violence in the Bible. No, that occurred when God showed up to inquire of Adam what had happened with the tree of knowledge, and he replied,
“What had happened was… she made me do it.”
Good work, Adam. You just set the bar for what male-female, husband-wife, confrontations will look like until Jesus comes a second time. But most of us skip right over Adam’s verbal blame because at least he didn’t kill someone.
And somehow, we’ve let not-peace, the aggression toward another person into the room because it’s “not that bad.”
Paul, beaten down and held captive for the sake of the gospel, wrote about peace over and over again. This is a guy who went after other people, Christians, to see them punished because he was so sure he was right in being Jewish! Imagine that apology: “I’m, like, um, terribly sorry I beat you up and arrested your brothers and sisters because, I, like, thought I knew everything. Actually, uh, God is like, way, bigger than I ever could’ve expected…”
You can almost hear him trying to get through to other people who are likeminded to what he used to be in Romans 12:16-18: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
Paul is writing this two thousand years ago for this guy (pointing at self)!
There’s nothing there that says that just because you’re peaceful, that the other person will respond peacefully, too.
There’s nothing in Paul’s experience that says that if you do the right thing, that other people will treat you correctly. In fact, Paul told slaves to do their best work and be honorable toward their masters even when there was no hope of freedom.
But the ideal here is that we’re living into a peace that will absolutely exist in the future because God has promised it. The words of the Christmas song we’ll sing after the sermon, “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” lay out a framework for the building blocks of how we can live into real peace.
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth
The peace that was meant to be.
With God as our father
Brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
In perfect harmony.
We’re supposed to practice it but we have to admit that it exists first- we probably have to experience someone else showing us that kind of love and not-peace before we actually get our ‘aha’ moment, or at least a strong experience of God’s overpowering love for us.
The author of the song, Jill Jackson-Miller told how she came to the words of the song in an interview with NPR on Humankind:
“When I attempted suicide [in 1944] and I didn’t succeed, I knew for the first time unconditional love—which God is. You are totally loved, totally accepted, just the way you are. In that moment I was not allowed to die, and something happened to me, which is very difficult to explain. I had an eternal moment of truth, in which I knew I was loved, and I knew I was here for a purpose.”
Jackson wrote the lyrics in 1955 and her husband Sy Miller wrote the melody as they experienced a group of nearly two hundred teens, gathered to explore friendship and understanding each other. Representing a diversity of nations and races, they sang the song together, living it out in their community as they reflected over the words of the song.
The song urges us to remember that we are not “other” but brothers and sisters, that we are not competitors or opponents but strangers who have not become friends yet. The song echoes the teachings of Jesus and Paul, who lay out the way that God expects us to act toward peace:
Love your enemies.
Turn the other cheek.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Pray for those who hurt you.
Do good for those who mistreat you.
Bless those who curse you.
Peacemaking means that we can’t sit on the sidelines; we can’t hide our eyes and act like the injustices in our families and communities will go away. It doesn’t mean that we feel peaceful or that we necessarily fully understand what loving people who don’t love us back looks like. It doesn’t mean that we’re in a court of law where someone is right or someone is wrong like Judge Judy.
Peacemaking doesn’t even mean that we are necessarily going to create peace. It just means that we are choosing to control what we can control: that as far as it is possible with us, we will live in peace.
That we will be the good guys, by following the best Guy, that we will do what’s right, that in that moment, we will be who we’ve always wanted to be.
Peace is not easy; peace is complicated, and sometimes painful, and always a journey.
So what attitude about life do you need to change this week?
Who do you need to love peacefully even if they don’t offer peace back?
Who do you need to intercede for that they may experience peace from the hurt they receive?
How can you model your life after Jesus, who chose to take the beatings that weren’t his to receive, to suffer the pain that he didn’t deserve for you and me?
I leave you today with one last (real life) example of freedom from not peace and the embrace of real peace, from one of my favorite movies of all time that no one has seen: To End All Wars. The screenplay is by Brian Godawa, but it’s the real-life story of Ernest Gordon, a Scot who became the chaplain at Princeton University after World War II. Abused and beaten down by the Japanese soldiers who controlled the prisoner of war camp, and forced to help build the Burmese Railway, Gordon makes the decision to not seek justice and violence on those who had mistreated him. Instead, he cares for their wounded and puts his life on the line so that even the head of the camp will be spared. Gordon recognizes that if he acts in violence and anger, he is no better than those who hurt him. As he wrote in his memoir:
“What is the final destination of hatred? When you look in the eyes of the enemy and you see yourself… at what price, mercy? Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love ones enemies? What can a man give in exchange for his soul? These are the questions I asked during my time in the camps… the answers changed my life forever.“
Peace will win. What we can control is whether we will be part of it or not.
I found Rick Love’s book, Peace Catalysts, to be quite helpful as I prepared for this sermon, thanks to his take on peace theologically and his experiences in working toward peace in real life. Check it out here.