Monday, September 21, 2015

Blessed are the peacemakers

Sermon notes for Proper 20B (9/20/2015)
(I rarely write my sermons completely so I don’t have a precise script of what I said during my homily. What I offer here are “Sermon Notes,” recollections of what I said, wanted to say, or should have said, all in retrospect.)

The International Day of Peace was established in 1981 by the United Nations General Assembly to coincide with its opening session. It was held annually on the third Tuesday of September for twenty years, from 1982 to 2001.

In 2001, the General Assembly by unanimous vote established that the International Day of Peace would be celebrated annually on September 21st, a day of non-violence and cease-fire.

Now, each year on September 21st, the International Day of Peace is observed around the world. It is a day “devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.” It is a day on which all peoples are invited to cease hostilities, and to otherwise commemorate peace through education, public awareness, prayer, and reflection. Tomorrow, I will accept from Mayor Howard Wiggs a proclamation in which he does “hereby proclaim September 21, 2015 as International Day of Peace in the City of Lakeland,” thus joining tens of thousands of communities from the around the world in so doing.

While the day is particularly focused on international wars and civil violence, the day is also a great time for us to ponder our place in the fostering peace and in the ways that we might have failed.

So, here they are, four ways that we as individual Christians and as Church might be peacemakers.

First, to be peacemakers we must oppose violence and war. This, I suppose, sounds obvious. I have watched religious leaders offer pleas for forgiveness, heard apologies, and seen sincere acts of penance for the so-called “Crusades” to free the Holy Land, for the Catholic/Protestant wars that tore apart 16th century Europe, and for the religiously supported if not induced subjugation of natives peoples.

But we need not go so far back to see where Christians have failed to promote peace and have, in fact, supported war in the name of our God. In the lead up to the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, there were a great many influential Christian preachers who whipped up support for the war among the faithful, using the name and character of God for their support.
  • Charles Stanley, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta, affirmed, "God battles with people who oppose him, and fight against him and his followers. So, even though He hates war, God is not against it" (italics added). Using a variety of Old Testament passages and even some form Romans taken completely out of context, Stanley very cleverly insists that we must follow our government to war because “every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God….There whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1-2). What about the governing authority against whom we fight? Or is only ours somehow uniquely ordained? Then there is a clearly slanted reading of Luke 6:27-30 in which the other cheek only refers to individuals not to nations to which I must ask, “Is not the nation made up of individuals?” 
  • Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham) and Marvin Olasky (editor of the World magazine and former advisor to George W. Bush of “faith-based policy”) suggested that the war could be an opening for Christians, creating “exciting new prospects for proselytizing Muslims.”
  • Tim LaHaye, co-author of the best-selling Left Behind series, saw the Iraq War as "a focal point of end-times events,” suggesting that by the war we might usher in the coming of Christ.
  • A Jerry Falwell article, published in 2004 on, boasts in its title, “God is pro-war.” And while the article affirms near the beginning that “Christians are to be people of peace,” he proceeds to tell us why Christians should support the war in Iraq.
All this to say that Christian leaders have been using the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace, to support violence and war for some time. This must stop!

A Muslim imam recently underscored the very centrality of peace-making in the teaching of Jesus and in the biblical vision of the kingdom of God at a conference held at Messiah College, during a talk on the role Islam in achieving world peace. In reflecting on the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, he commented on the nature of peace and role of peace-making in each. In Islam, one finds a mixed witness from the prophet. In the beginning of his career, Muhammad was indeed a pacifist, living by the code of Salema (Arabic for “peace” and root of the word Islam). Later in his life, however, Muhammed would become a soldier. Similarly, there is a great deal of ambiguity in Judaism. The Hebrew Bible features some quite vivid accounts of wars directed by God. In other sections, however, there is a vigorous condemnation of war-making and an equally vigorous charge for peace-making.

The Imam then talked about Christianity, saying that of the three Abrahamic traditions only Jesus was consistent and unequivocal on the demand to be peace-making. The problem is that many Christians don't get it. But Jesus' teachings on this point are crystal clear:
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:43-44)
The apostle Paul picked up the same refrain in his letter to the Romans:
"Repay no one evil for evil . . . . If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink." (Romans 12:17, 20)
Yes, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Second, to be peacemakers we must seek justice. The Old Testament offers three marks of justice: welcome the stranger and care after the orphan and widow. In other words, God tells his people to look after those with no power of their own, who are weak by their standards and need protection. The Lord once looked after the Hebrews when they were a stranger in a strange land, when their men, young and old, were killed by their Egyptian masters. And such is the charge that God gives to them and the measure by which God measures their fidelity.

Now, to be honest, the New Testament demands are quite a bit more detailed if not stricter. Jesus, the very Son of God, himself grabs a bowl and towel to serve his disciples and reminds us to love our neighbors as ourselves. In his Parable of the Good Samaritan, though, Jesus transforms what it means to be neighbor, insisting that we must care for even our hated enemies. And in Matthew 25, the demands of justice are reiterated – welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, care for the sick, visit those imprisoned, and cloth the naked.

Will we seek justice and welcome the stranger…
or better yet, 
will we seek solutions to why so many refugees are fleeing to the shores of Europe and why so many seek to cross the Rio Grande, fleeing the violence of Central America that we helped to foster.

Will we seek justice and care for the sick…
or better yet, 
will we provide adequate health care for all, children and mothers and fathers.

Will we seek justice and visit those in prison…
or better yet, 
will we decrease the amount of human beings who are corralled like cattle into our system.

Will we seek justice and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked…
or better yet, 
work to fix a system that marginalizes its workers, aim to provide living wages, and seek to care for those who are unable to care for themselves.
"Blessed are you for you cared for me, for I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you cared for me, I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was in prison and you came to visit me, I was homeless and you gave me shelter." And his disciples said, "When did we do any of those things for you?" And he said, "If you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me."
ENABLE OTHERS TO FLEE VIOLENCEThird, to be peacemakers we must let people know that they do not have to live in violence and enable them to flee it. I am, of course, imagining with the rest of you the heart-rending stories of those fleeing from Syria, seeking refuge in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

But its not just about those who are fleeing the bombs of Assad and the beheadings of ISIL. We must remind everyone that they do not have to live with violence.:
  • Those suffering in domestic violence, at the hands of someone that claims love.
  • Those suffering hatred and fear because of the color of their skin.
  • Those suffering bigotry based on their sexual orientation.
  • Those suffering discrimination because of their gender.
It is our responsibility to let them know that they do not have to live in violence. And then must help them escape that violence. Today is not the time to outline the answers though a time will come and soon that this church must do just that. So let’s start with a few questions for our own reflection:
  • How do we help people escape violence?
  • When we see people living in violence do we challenge the perpetrators? When we see hatred and bigotry do we name the source and call it to repentance?
  • Do we work to change the institutions that perpetuate violence in all its forms?
Fourth, to be peacemakers we must preach a message of peace and welcoming. From the start, then, our church must be a place of refuge for all who come. Do we truly welcome everyone to the sacramental life of the church? Is our table set, awaiting those who come or are some excluded because they look different, act different, love different, or think different? And is the fountain of baptism accessible to all who come or is it restricted to those who will “fit in” or are “most like us?”

Likewise, our words need to match our sacramental actions. We need to stop preaching with words that bully. In other words, we need to stop using hell to scare people into faith and, for that matter, its corollary, the promise of heaven. Both are scare tactics, bullying words that belie our faith that is borne out of love.

In the section of the letter of James that we heard today, James instructs,
Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and God will craw near to you.
Indeed, resist the devil – resist evil – resist violence, and it will flee from you. Draw near to God – draw near to peace and it will draw near to you.

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