Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Challenge of Peacemaking (Matthew 5:9) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

 A young rabbi found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday Sabbath service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the young rabbi said or did helped solve the impasse. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi went to visit the synagogue's 99-year-old distinguished founder.

He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles. "So tell me was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?"  "No," answered the old rabbi.  "Ah," responded the younger man, "then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers." "No," answered the old rabbi. 

"Well," the young rabbi responded,  “I don't understand, what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout and the other half sit and scream."  "Ah," said the old rabbi, "that was the tradition."

Blessed are the peacemakers!  On this World Communion Sunday, we celebrate our membership as Presbyterians in the world-wide Christian family.  Today we affirm our unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe.  Yes, we acknowledge our differences, but we recognize that we have so much more in common.   We have a common faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and one church, the body of Christ, and one baptism, the sign of forgiveness and admission into the church and one mission to love our neighbors and reach unbelievers for the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

A central theme of World Communion Sunday is Jesus’ call to his followers to be peacemakers.  Jesus declares: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  It is a high calling, a holy calling, a sacred calling, it is God’s calling upon those who follow Jesus. 

Without question it’s not an easy calling in a world filled with conflict.   We see it in partisan politics, where Republicans and Democrats are polarized and instead of cooperating and working together to solve the nation's problems continue to blame each other for the ills of our economy and everything else which has led now to our current government shut-down.  We see it in violence in our society, shootings in schools,  in movie theaters, and on our city streets.   We see examples of conflict in families, in business, in our jobs, and in the church.

We have the perception from what we hear daily in the media that strife and violence is on the rise and rules the day.  But the facts speak differently.  According to the Crime in the United States 2011 report, the estimated number of violent crimes reported by law enforcement decreased for the fifth year in a row, while the estimated number of property crimes reported by law enforcement, decreased for the ninth year in a row.

The new preliminary Uniform Crime Reporting statistics for 2012 indicate that when compared to data for 2011, the number of violent crimes reported by law enforcement agencies around the country increased 1.2 percent during 2012, while the number of property crimes decreased 0.8 percent.  So it appears,  that last year broke a five year decline of violent crime in America.  Clearly that is not a good change.  But there is a caveat. 

The last time the crime rate for serious crime – murder, rape, robbery, assault – fell to these current levels, gasoline cost 29 cents a gallon and the average income for a working American was $5,807. That was 1963.   The Christian Science Monitor reports that the US crime rate is at its lowest point in decades.  They ask - Why America is safer now.  The crime rate for serious crimes has dropped significantly in part because of changes in technology and policing.  So even with the uptick in crime, America is actually safer now that it was decades ago.  Nevertheless, human conflict is a reality which stretches back to the time of Cain and Able in the story in Genesis.   Discord makes life uncomfortable, miserable, and frightening.   It takes the joy out of life.  Yes, civil conflict in race relations has led ultimately to positive and just changes in our society.  No one would deny that.   But conflict can also degenerate into destructive and violent behavior.

And yet, in the midst of all this, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, whom God sent to make peace with humanity, to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins, to reconcile humanity to God, whose peacemaking work led to a cross, calls us to the holy work of peacemaking – to build bridges between people, to bring healing, to seek reconciliation, to work for unity, to labor for justice and fairness in His name and in His Spirit. 

What do you do when you find yourself entangled in conflict?  We are faced with two options – fight or flight and sometimes we flee, we avoid it, we run away, we look for an escape route, and in certain situations that is the sensible thing to do.   Another response is denial.  “What problem?”  “I don’t see a problem?”   “Do you see a problem.”  That might be the first clue that you are in denial.   We pretend that nothing is wrong.  We don’t admit it to ourselves or to others.  It’s the elephant in the room.   At other times we decide to break off the relationship, to cut off contact, and stop communication.    The saddest and most tragic flight response is suicide.  People lose all hope of resolving a conflict and succumb to despair.  I have personally ministered to families where this has occurred.  

The other reaction is to fight.  The situation quickly escalates and becomes adversarial.   Our goal is to defeat the opponent and win the battle at any cost.    One may engage in verbal attacks, threats, gossip, slander, and attempts to ruin a person’s reputation or destroy a person financially or professionally.   Litigation, lawsuits, is a common weapon today.   And of course by far the most extreme fight response is murder.

We read in the letter of Romans that Christ summons us as His followers to a new attitude and behavior. “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  A peacemaker is one who strives to live peaceably with everyone.  The famous Scottish theologian Dr. William Barclay puts it succinctly: “He who divides is doing the devil's work, he who unites is doing God's work.”   I wish I would have said it.

If you follow Jesus then peacemaking is your work and it’s my work.  It's not an option.  And its some of the most difficult work Jesus calls us to.  The circumstances are usually overflowing with intense feelings.  We must listen carefully and balance striving for peace and reconciliation with principles of truth and right and justice and fairness.  Making peace doesn't mean peace at any price.  Making peace doesn't mean making everybody happy.  It means finding the way to do the right thing.  It is finding common ground.  It doesn't mean abdicating your principles.  We must speak out for justice and not be silent.  It doesn't mean tolerating unjust and bad behavior in order to keep the peace. 

Peacemaking also acknowledges that there are situations where no matter what you do or how hard you try reconciling with someone and finding a peaceful solution it just doesn’t work.  Despite our prayers, despite our attempts, and the time we invest there are situations that are beyond our power and ability.  And we must give it over to God. 

Is there someone you are striving to make peace with today?  The first step always is to go to God in prayer and ask God for wisdom and guidance and inspiration and courage.  I read an article about the persecution going on in Egypt by the Islamic militants against Coptic Christian families.   Christians in some towns have been ordered to leave their farms and shops.  Churches have been bombed.  The government is doing virtually nothing to protect these Christians.  I came across this story:  “Mamdouh Nasef, a Coptic shop owner, who recently came under attack, said his Muslim neighbors are urging him to stay and pledging to protect him.  Nasef said he doesn’t want to move his family and that these Muslims are like his brothers.”  These Muslim neighbors show incredible courage and are putting their own lives at great risk as peacemakers. 

Jesus says: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”   What does Jesus mean in these words?  You of course must ultimately decide and apply them to your own life.  It might mean overlooking some small offense instead of making a big production about it.   Some things are just not worth bringing up.   It might mean taking the initiative as a reconciler.  Scripture says, “If your brother has something against you, go and be reconciled.”  First, go to the person directly and talk about the situation and try to reach a resolution, rather than talking to everyone else about it.  It might mean finding a mediator if after you have talked to the person you find that you can't reach an agreement.  Secure a trained mediator to meet with the two of you to help resolve your issues.   You also might want to enroll in a course on mediation training.

It might also mean securing an arbitrator.  When you and another person cannot come to a voluntary agreement, you may appoint an arbitrator and give that arbitrator the authority to render a binding decision to settle the issue. 

The challenge of peacemaking.  Peacemaking is indeed a high calling, a holy work, it is your work and it is my work.  Trust that God's Spirit will be with you in this work.  Where is God calling you to be a peacemaker? 

I close with the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the 12th century Franciscan order of monks:   “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.  Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying   that we are born to eternal life.”  Amen!

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