Pray for Peace, Act for Peace
A sermon based on Matthew 26:36-52
given at Mount Vernon, OH on July 15, 2018*
by Rev. Scott Elliott
It is so good to be back!
As you probably know I have just come back from medical leave recuperating from back surgery and a few unexpected dangerous happenings along the way. It all sort of knocked me for a loop and I ended up needing all of my leave to be able to climb back up here and say I am back . . . and I am so, so much better now.
Thank you all for the time needed to get to the point where I could climb up here. I am very grateful to so many of you who supported me in prayer and work at the church and with thoughtful cards and gifts and Facebook posts and e-mails, and to the many who helped Nancy and me at the hospitals and at home. It took more than good medical care to get me back, it took an incredible caring spouse and an exceptional church family. Thank you! I cannot say it enough: THANK YOU.
Of course in all of that I experienced the hands and voice of God, incarnate in humans, but also in spiritual ways I am still trying to fathom. Obviously I’d be remiss if I did not mention my deep and abiding gratitude to God for getting me and us through it all.
At about the halfway point of my recovery I starting slowly and steadily trying to do more than rest and pray. I started reading and writing a little at first . . . then more and more. Like much of my prayer life, the study and work that I do as a pastor ultimately ends up aiming toward peace . . . or should.
When I mention that I study peace I sometimes I get asked why or how one studies peace? That’s actually a good question, but, one that makes me a little sad. In our culture studying war and weapons fighting is pretty well understood. Even the ins and outs of who we are supposed to be suspicious of or consider enemies is taught to us in a myriad of ways.
We get a lot of exposure to training for war and violence and diminishing the value of real and imagined enemies. But studying peace? What is that? For us studying “peace,” begins with the biblical word “shalom” a Hebrew word for peace that includes the meaning fullness and well being. And as my theological dictionary points out “It’s more than the lack of war and points to full societal and personal well being, coupled with righteousness.” 1
In the New Testament the Greek word for peace is eiréné (i-ray’-nay) and has roots that means ‘to join, tie together into a whole’) . . . “[W]hen all essential parts are joined together; peace [is] God’s gift of wholeness”. 2. So Biblical peace means ALL have enough and ALL are treated justly and with respect– ALL are joined together to share in the gift God wishes for us ALL: wholeness.
Studying peace considers not just what peace is in an academic sense, but considers ways in which to bring about personal fullness and well being, and others’ fullness and well being and communal fullness and well being. It IS about wholeness.
AND to state the obvious we must not just study peace, we must pray for peace and act for peace. Peace study considers actions we can do to tie us ALL together to deliver the gift of God’s wholeness to ALL! To put it in the famous words from Luke’s Christmas story that light up on our church tower, it’s about bringing about “peace on earth.”
Studying peace explores alternatives to violence in the world, violence not just from war and physical fighting, but violence from injustices, oppression, exploitation, poverty and any “ism” humans have invented. To study peace is to study how we can go about changing the way we feel about those we are taught to hate as “others” or enemies, and HOW we go about bringing peace through, well . . . peace-full means.
Jesus taught us to care for and desire the well being of everyone– even enemies. In Isaiah 2, scripture written before Jesus was born, one of the primary goals of peace that most of us probably think of is set out:
Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:3-4 NRS)
Being taught by God to learn war no more. Acting for peace is that for sure. In the famous instance in our lesson today Jesus shows us how this works by stopping the disciples from sword-fighting with those who came to arrest him. Jesus literally tells Peter to put up his sword.
Reflecting on this story Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King noted poignantly
That through the vista of time a voice still cries out to every potential Peter. “Put up your sword!” The shores of history are white with the bleached bones of nations and communities that failed to follow this command.” 2
Peace educator and advocate Colman McCarthy sums up what peace students look for in peace education in a broad sense.
[Peace] students . . . are looking for a world where it becomes a little easier to love and a lot harder to hate, where learning non-violence means that we dedicate our hearts, minds, time and money to a commitment that the force of love, the force of truth, the force of justice, and the force of organized resistence to corrupt power are seen as sane and the forces of fists, guns, armies and bombs insane. 3
McCarthy goes on to note that “unless we teach our children peace someone else will teach them violence.”
And if we do not think that is a smart thing to say or think, no less a brainiac than Albert Einstein wrote “I would teach peace rather than war, love rather than hate.” 4
And Mahatma Gandhi – a peace monger if there ever was one– agreed. He said:
If we are to reach real peace in the world then we shall have to begin with the children. And if they will grow up in their natural innocence, we won’t have to struggle, we won’t have to pass fruitless resolutions, but we shall go from love to love and peace to peace.” 5
Jesus, the Prince of Peace whom we espouse to follow, tells us in no uncertain words in Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
Jesus also makes it clear in Matthew 25 that nations will not just be judged on the non-existence of warring, but on how they tend to the least amongst us. Each person is loved by, and matters much to God and each person must be loved and matter to nations – and to us as followers of Christ.
In Luke (4: 18) Jesus, the one sent to bring peace on earth good will to all, told us in his first sermon what that peace looks like when He said he came:
“to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free . . .”
So my incremental re-immersion back into studying as I slowly recovered was meant to help me, and I hope us, to become better peacemakers.
I spend a lot of my ministry studying and working on peace. And that is one reason we have Peace Village our church’s wonderful summer camp effort to teach peace to children, but adults need to study and learn and be taught peace too. I consider the ministry we do together, when it is all boiled down, to be about that. To borrow from the title of our Peace Village classes Christianity done right is about peace within, peace with others, peace in the culture and peace with creation.
I cannot study peace enough. We cannot study peace enough. Learning peace is not just for children, it is for all of us. We need to consider and reconsider how we can take steps toward a day when we “beat . . . swords into plowshares, and . . . spears into pruning hooks; [a day when] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more,” a day when we find a way for nations to tend to the least amongst us. We need to consider and reconsider how we can “bring good news to the poor . . . proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free . . .”
What saddens me most about questions regarding peace studies is not that we understand studying war but not studying peace, it is that we are very skeptical the day will ever come when “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more . . .” And we tend to think it is pie-in-the-sky that Jesus came to actually provide good news for the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.
We must not think of be skeptical about peace or think it pie-in-the-sky. We must believe in peace. We must pray for peace and act for peace – and mean it! Our entire faith tradition is grounded on the great hope that comes from the promises of peace– promises by God, promises by Jesus, promises by our Bible and religious tradition. Those promises comes from the justice and kindness and love center of Christianity, Jesus’ Way. God’s ceaseless call.
Love, non-violence is the very force of God. And we have seen that the power of non-violence has no match. Gentle as is it is, it is the greatest power in the world. Non-violence is love in action, it is just and kind and humble and it is an act for peace. Jesus taught that love to us and practiced it, and his life and actions have vibrated throughout time because of it.
A week ago I received a wonderful book of peace meditations called soft as water. It was sent to me by the author Rev. Charles Busch, who created Peace Village. The title of Charles’ book is taken from these words in the Tao Te Ching:
Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. (p. 8)
Charles notes his book is “a call to overcome violence with the soft power at work in us: love, honesty, humility, forgiveness, devotion to justice.” (Ibid). That list is exactly what Jesus practiced and taught. It is exactly what Jesus’ Way aims toward, calls us to.
Jesus followed the God of love toward peace. Through non-violence others have done this, most notably in recent history Gandhi and King, both were amazingly successful with soft as water acts for peace. So we know it can work. Yet we resist. We do not believe.
Praying for peace and acting for peace means we work toward a world where IT IS POSSIBLE that all have enough, where justice exists for all, where peace – shalom– fullness and well being reign for all. It is not just the absence of war, but the presence of well being for all. That is God and Jesus and most of humankind’s dream. A dream of peace.
The world right now is full of unrest and violence. In our nation there is acrimony, divisiveness, oppression and threats of more, even worries about nuclear war. There is not peace. In my time away that has in some ways grown more true in just six weeks.
But in my time away there have been examples of peace that offer promise. We can even find it in two issues that have created much concern and controversy. I am aware of the disagreements, the pros and cons, and I am aware how they have been spun as wedges of divisiveness. But I would be remiss if I did not point out in a peace sermon these two huge, huge acts of peace.
The first is the president’s decision and work to halt decades old war games simulating the annihilation of North Korea. This is – when all is said and done– a huge, huge step toward God’s desire for wholeness. We may disagree with how we got to that decision to halt over sixty years of threats, but objectively speaking it promises a putting up of swords, it is – THANK GOD– a peace-full step. May that one step unfold as promised.
The other example of peace that offers promise is our nation’s and the rest of the world’s overwhelming opposition to the cruelty of separating of children from their parents at the border. There’s been all kinds of finger pointing, but whether the wrongful acts had roots with this party or that party, does not matter. What matters is when Americans and many others in the world learned about it they opposed and resisted it, so much so, eventually both parties worked to stop it. Objectively speaking that too is – THANK GOD– a huge peaceful step.
Efforts of peace to end war and end oppression do occur, they have occurred recently. For sure much, much more needs to be done, but huge things have happened toward peace! Soft as water endlessly working as God’s hands and feet and voice we can bring about more and more peace. We need to dream of peace, to nourish peace, to pray for peace, to act for peace.
Peace Meditation 22 of Charles’ book soft as water is to this point starting with a powerful story many of you have heard:
A Cherokee elder is sharing wisdom with his grandson. “A fight is going on inside of me,” he says to the boy. “It is a terrific fight, and it is between two wolves.”
“One is evil” He is anger, envy, sorrow regret, greed, arrogance, self pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority. and ego.
“The other is good.” He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
“The same fight is going on inside of you, and inside every person, too.”
The grandson thinks about his grandfather’s words, then asks, “Which will win?”
He replies, “The one you feed”
There are times [Charles writes] when I find it difficult, maybe impossible, to believe in the essential goodness of humankind. I’ve seen too much intentional cruelty, and indifference to the suffering of others. And, the recurring madness of war. I also know too well the shadows at home in my own heart.
The Cherokee elder offers a wisdom which is practical and empowering: we become good by practicing goodness. The heart is neither divided nor whole but an open space. What prevails there is what we entertain:
The thoughts we hold. Stories we tell. Company we keep. Heroes we look to. The forgiveness we extend. Simplicity we practice. Books we read. The scripture we turn to. Songs we sing. Prayers we pray. The walks we take. The silence we keep. The silence we refuse to keep. (Rev. Charles Busch)
I am going to conclude by attempting to sing a capella about a dream of peace. This song you may know was written by Ed McCurdy in 1950. It is called “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.” The words are in the bulletin. Please feel free to join in if you like.
Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream words and music by Ed McCurdy
Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
I dreamed I saw a mighty room
The room was filled with men
And the paper they were signing said
They’d never fight again
And when the papers all were signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful prayers were prayed
And the people in the streets below
Were dancing round and round
And guns and swords and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground
Last night I had the strangest dream
I ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war
* A part of this sermon is based on a sermon I wrote in 2012
1. Westminister Dictionary of Theological Terms
3. King, Martin Luther, I Have A Dream 104
4. McCarthy Coleman, I’d Rather Teach Peace, p xv
5 Ibid at xx
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