Saturday, February 22, 2014

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

When I was in first grade, I somehow attracted the attention of a fourth grader, David Bentley, who decided I'd be a great little kid to bully. When the bus dropped us off at the front of the Shoals Elementary School, we had to walk outside around the perimeter to the rear portion of the building to get to the door that led to our particular classroom. To do this you had to walk along a long brick wall on a side of the building where there were no windows and doors. Turns out that was a perfect place for a kid to get bullied.

David never actually did hurt me. He pulled a butter knife on me once, but mostly he just like to pin me up against the wall and threatening me with all kinds of bodily harm that never was applied. In fact, the only punch ever thrown between the two of us was by me. My father, upon being told his son was being bullied, made it clear that I'd better defend myself for I'd face a worse whooping at home. Taking that advice to heart, pinned up against the wall one day, I punch David Bentley in the stomach, and when he doubled over, I ran like the devil chasing me.

But that didn't stop the bullying. Just made it worse. Thanks for nothing Dad.

It was only after I was so miserable that I talked to two older boys at our church, Tim Jesse and Fritz Weigle, what was going on that the situation got under control. You see, Tim and Fritz were safety patrols. They got to wear an orange sash and belt. You could only cross the parking lot, and then SR 119, when they said it was OK. They had the power to stop traffic.

And so one day, Tim and Fritz, in full safety patrol regalia, escorted me around the building, and when we hit that long blind sidewalk, you can imagine David Bentley's surprise when he saw the three of us. The two patrols explained to David that he was scaring me, that I wanted it to stop, and in the interest of safety he should leave me alone.

Don't underestimate the power of a safety patrol. After that, David Bentley never bothered me again. In fact, he'd wave and say hello most every time he saw me.

Of course not every story turns out like this. Peace in many corners of this world we live in, is elusive. Difficult.

This morning in Kiev, after much bloodshed there is a parliament back in session, and elections for a new president scheduled, but nobody knows what the future really hold for the Ukraine. Will the Russians intervene? The EU? Will those who wish to move the Ukraine into a more fully integrated position in the western world carry the day, or will Ukrainian nationalists, some neo-nazis, convince people that isolation is the better course?

Such, it seems, has been the case over the last five years or so across the Arab world. Nobody knows what the aftermath of the Arab Spring will be across the Middle East in places like Libya and Egypt. And as we speak Syria still is being torn apart.

I wish we could just send in a couple of safety patrols.

But I'll say this... the most revolutionary teachings of Jesus are the ones that touch on the topic of peace. I heard a rabbinical scholar not long ago say that nothing Jesus taught during his life couldn't also be found in the Old Testament, except for one thing:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[a] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

and then Jesus takes it even further...

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[b] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The heart of the Old Testament law is "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth", and yet here's Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, telling everyone that this isn't the ethos he is going to embody in his life. And true to his word, Jesus never leads an armed uprising. Never calls for a sword to be drawn or a battle to be waged. In fact, he chooses the ultimate turning of the cheek - his own death - instead of calling down hosts of angels to destroy those who oppose him. 

And the course of the early church follows this lead. Christians are to varying degrees persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and put to death, and never fight back. 

That sounds strange to us. But I want you to reconsider this. It's not that strange. 

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God."

Jesus wasn't just simply slaughtered, and cast in a tomb to be forgotten for all history. Jesus dies, but he is my no means passive or weak. His is not the death of a coward. On the other side of Jesus death, stood with Him a group - not a big group, but a group - of people so committed to creating a new Kingdom, a peaceable kingdom, they to become willing to stand for this strange new teaching, as they turn the other cheek, but refuse to back down on behalf of God, and those who need to experience his grace. Jesus death is the pathway to God's grace, and it leads through his people, committed to living out that grace in this world. To living as if Jesus is their king. 

You see if you read the Old Testament, you find out that God's people don't end up faring all that well living out "an eye for an eye" kind of existence. Just like in the case of David Bentley and myself, the party who is weaker, after experiencing a few blows and a lot of threats, becomes desperate for peace.  Israel's heyday in the aftermath of Joshua leading the people back into the promised land, and is capped by David unifying the 12 tribes and securing the borders to the degree that his new kingdom would be recognized by others... an art that his son, Solomon perfected later. But those victories over the Philistines were long in the rearview mirror when, after the fall of Israel, and then the fall of Judah, the prophets, battered by war and destruction, began to see a new day. A new place. A new kind of world:

In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
    as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
    and all nations will stream to it.
Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Come, descendants of Jacob,
    let us walk in the light of the Lord.

The power in visioning visions and dreaming dreams is that become a powerful tool in charting the course of history. We begin to mold our lives so those visions will come true. I was just reading an article about about an American Longboarder in the Olympics. If you don't know what long boarding is, join the crowd. It's essentially a competition where you ride down a mountain on a long snowboard and you try to go as fast as your bravery, or fear, will let you. Our long boarder lived in his truck so he could afford to train. That's power of vision. It will compel you to do things NOW in the belief of what results will yield later. And this is Isaiah's vision. Tired of wars and battles, Isaiah envisions a place where the wisdom of the Lord, the light of his grace, would be that which would settle all disputes and differences. And he knew that this kind of world wouldn't be made manifest through armies and generals and politics. It would have to be made manifest through the hearts of God's people.

A vision that becomes embodied in Jesus. We are his children, the peacemakers.

When you take the initiative to end the dispute, to put down the weapons that have been employed. When you admit a prejudice that made you do stupid destructive things, and seek a new way to live that's smart and constructive. If you decide it would be better to die with your honor and integrity, in tact, for the sake of something greater without taking another life, well I don't know if there's anything more powerful out there. And that's not weak or passive. That's what changes the world. 

One of the better movies I've seen in recent years was "The Butler". For those who haven't seen it, you should. It's the story of a man who rises up from the pain of a hard upbringing in the cotton fields of the deep south, to becoming a long-time butler in White House. Cecil Gaines served for 34 years in the White House, living through Civil Rights era, Vietnam, and even until the day the Berlin Wall came down. 

A shadow story in the movie, however, was that of Cecil's oldest son, Louis, who enrolls in Fisk University, and instead of getting the education his father dreams of so that he can have a professional career, gets involved with the Civil Right movement. He volunteers for training in non-violent protest with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and engages in sit ins at lunch counters, the Birmingham Childrens Crusade, and the marches in Selma, Alabama which led to Voting Rights act being signed in 1965. Louis eventually gets a degree, but also is repeatedly arrested simply seeking dignity and respect for all. He receives another education. 

And the movie is this study in how two men, both flawed, both non-violently but firmly and directly, defy expectations and seek the make the world better. More just. More peaceful. The father by showing class, dignity, and loyalty, which in turn earns the respect of all so that on important issues he can be heard. The son in becoming part of a movement seeking to stand up for what is right. And together, in their own way, sometimes at odds, move the needle the justice.

You see peace starts in your own heart. It begins with treating with others the way you'd like to be treated, but then actively seeking to create a world where others are treated fairly through living out your convictions, even if it means paying a price standing up for the only Kingdom that will last forever. It begins knowing that beyond a shadow of a doubt you are God's child, but then seeking create a life that radical hospitality beacons others to join in this community of Jesus where they can discover they are children also.  

Sowing peace will involve....
- Seeing Others As God's Children (Love your neighbor)
- Refusing to Look Past Injustice (act better than the tax collectors who just love who love them)
- Prepare To Do What's Right (Ponder what it means not to resist an evil person)
- Expect To Pay The Cost (go the extra mile, turn the other cheek)
- Wrap It In Prayer With Other Disciples
- Keep your eye on the dream (live as if swords will be bent into plowshares)

So, where are you being called to sow peace, now, in your life? Where is God calling you? If you seem alone, who can you pray about this with so that will no longer will be on your own? What are you willing to give up?