Sunday, July 25, 2004

The Happiness Project: The People Who Make Peace

Matthew 5:9
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, July 25, 2004)

Back in the 1960s, a young Christian, a white Quaker from the North named David made a courageous decision. Aware that African-Americans in the South were daily subjected to the physical, social, emotional violence of legalized discrimination, he would go south and befriend African-Americans and whites. He would be a peacemaker.

One day, David and one of his African-American friends walked into a drug store and ordered two Cokes. In a moment, David felt something sharp and hard being pushed into his back. He turned to see the most hate-filled face he’d ever seen. It belonged to a man who was holding what David now saw was a knife. It was aimed at his heart. David looked into eyes full of contempt and said, “Friend, whether you push that knife into my heart or not is obviously up to you. I want you to know that in either event, I love you.”

How did the knife-wielding man react? His hand trembled a bit, he dropped his weapon, and he ran from the store. That man had come face-to-face with a response to violence he may have never seen before. Usually, we react to violence in one of four ways. We either fight, run, refuse to get involved, or we give in. But David evidenced a fifth response to violence. I call it the Jesus way. He stood his ground and refused to meet violence with violence. He had the courage to say in effect, “I’m not going to be a monster. I’m going to be a human being.” David truly was what Jesus calls a “peacemaker.”

Now, when Jesus and the New Testament writers talk about peace, they can mean three different things, often all at the same time.

First: They can be referring to the end of hostility between people, whether between nations or individuals.

Second: They can mean the peace between God and us that comes to those who entrust their lives to Jesus, Who died on a cross to bring that relationship of peace.

Third: They can also mean the peace of mind that comes to our lives when we know that through Christ, we belong to God forever.

The New Testament also makes it clear that all three of these forms of peace are gifts that come to our lives through Jesus Christ. That’s why the Bible says that Jesus “is our peace” and calls Him the “Prince of peace.”

But the peace of Christ is not some abstract concept achieved through advanced study or contemplation.

The peace of Christ is more like a disease---a good disease---that gets transmitted from one organism to another. And what are the cells that Jesus uses to transmit this good disease? You and I are. The followers of Jesus are the conduits by which peace comes to people.

And that, to tell you the truth, is precisely where I have always struggled with Jesus’ words in today’s Bible lesson.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” I sure want to be called a child of God. Maybe you do too. I want everybody to live in peace. Theoretically, anyway. But, as David’s experience in that drug store demonstrates, being a peacemaker can be dangerous.

One thing that makes peacemaking dangerous is that we live in a violent world. Not only can we, in extreme circumstances, be threatened with physical violence, we can also be subjected to other kinds of violence. We can be rejected and snubbed. We can be ignored or treated as though we don’t even exist. There may be people here this morning who have been at the receiving end of that sort of violence. Frankly, I don’t know if I have the courage to be a peacemaker in such a world. And yet, this is precisely the kind of world that needs courageous peacemakers.

A Christian who was involved in the struggle for all people to be treated fairly back in the 1970s was once telling a group of people how important it was for Christians to make peace by being peaceful themselves, even risking responses like the one David evoked. Someone objected, asking, “Don’t you realize where advice like that might lead some of us?” “Yes,” said the Christian leader, “I know where it leads. Before you start down this path [of being a peacemaker] you better make sure you look good on wood.”

I wonder if this is what Jesus meant when He told us that anybody who follows Him needs to take up a cross first? If so, it scares me.

But peacemakers risk more than their lives. To this point, I haven’t mentioned something important in this series of messages on happiness that I’ve been doing on Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, verses 1 through 12. It’s this: In the balance of chapter 5, as well in chapters 6 and 7, Jesus expands on the portraits of blessedness or happiness He gives. And so, at one point, later in chapter 5 of Matthew's book, Jesus explains what it means to be a peacemaker by saying:

“You have heard that it was said. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”
These words frighten me too, because here Jesus is saying that once we throw in with Him, entrusting our lives and our futures to His hands, we need to be so secure and so certain of our destinies with Him that we willingly give everything that we have and everything we are to live with love for God and love for neighbor.

I find that difficult, to say the least. This past Tuesday afternoon, our son and I went to see the Reds play the Brewers. We had a great time. We ate lunch at the Machine Grill. We bought seats up near the top on the first base side so that we not only enjoyed the game, but also sat in the shade, soaking up gentle breezes and occasionally, looking out over the Ohio River, watching the barges and the speedboats pass by. It’s sort of what I imagine heaven will be like, folks.

But as we walked back to our car, a clean, respectably dressed man approached me. “Sir,” he said, “may I speak with you for just a moment?” He said that he’d recently lost his job and while he had put in three applications just that day, he didn’t know if any of those would pan out yet. “I just need a few dollars.” I cut him off and walked away.

Was the guy scamming me? Probably. But as the day wore on, I remembered the words of a woman, formerly a member of this congregation, who said that whenever she was confronted with beggars as she walked around downtown, she always gave them money. “If they’re lying,” she told me, “the onus is on them. But my conscience is clear. I do what I can for them.”

And Jesus’ words---”Give to everyone who begs”---couldn’t be clearer. It would have been easy for me to have pulled out a couple of bucks and handed them to the man who talked to me outside of Great American Ballpark. Instead, for the rest of the night, I wrestled with my conscience and offered a prayer of grief and repentance to God. I vowed to God that, with His help, I would live differently. I would be a peacemaker who gives love in all its forms to my neighbors in need.

And then yesterday, after the wedding, I was greeting people when an interruption came. Somebody told me, “There’s a young woman wanting to speak with the pastor.” I was introduced to a slight young woman. “I was just wondering,” she said, “if maybe my family could get some help. My father has MS and is unable to work any longer. Could you donate a few dollars to help us?” My heart started erecting new walls even as the young woman spoke. I hid behind them and said, “Our church doesn’t really have money set aside for things like that. We do give to organizations that help with such situations, but we don’t have the money.”

I don’t know if the young woman was scamming me, too. But that’s beside the point. I could have handed her a few bucks. The fact is that I was afraid---afraid of having less for myself, afraid of being played for the chump.

And fear, I have discovered, is the main reason we fail to be peacemakers. We’re afraid of losing our property, our lives, our positions. But the follower of Jesus Christ knows that everything we have---our very breath---is just a gift from God. Even when we give our lives away out of love for God and neighbor---exactly what Jesus did on the cross, the Jesus-Follower knows that God has more life and blessings up His sleeve for us. And He’s committed to giving those blessings to anyone who turns from sin and turns to Him for forgiveness and new life for all eternity. So, we don’t need to be afraid. I wish that I could remember that in the day-in, day-out living of life!

Holden Village is a camp in Washington State run by the Lutheran church. It’s a place where people often gather to talk about how they can be peacemakers. Once after a lecture, one man whose farm sat astride an Indian reservation, shared with the lecturer that some of the Native Americans who lived nearby to him kept stealing gasoline from his tank. A lock he’d installed was broken and removed. A spotlight failed to chase thieves away. The lecturer listened as this man struggled to understand what the Jesus way was through this problem. Finally, he suggested a solution to the man. Why not put up a sign that says, “Help yourself if you need gasoline”?

The farmer’s reaction was incredible. “Oh, would that be freedom,” he said, “to be able to do that and have the awful burden of protecting that gas tank off my mind!”

Real peacemakers, having totally surrendered to God, experience that kind of release, I think. They experience true happiness. I hope to be that kind of happy person someday. I can only pray that God will have patience with me until I grow up enough to get there. I will have to simply keep depending on His grace that accepts me as I am and that loves me too much to let me stay there.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” Jesus tells us today. May we all learn to be Jesus’ peacemakers.

[The true stories of David and the farmer, as well as the quote from the Christian peacemaker about looking good on wood, all come from John and Mary Schramm's book, Things That Make for Peace. I am heavily indebted to that book for inspiration for this message.

[The summary of the New Testament's teaching about what peace is, comes from the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.

[The list of typical reactions to violence appears in the Schramm book and summarizes insights shared by Lanzo del Vasto in his book, Warriors of Peace. I haven't personally read this book.]

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