Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Peter DeGroote




Exploring Peace

Sunday, June 11, 2006



Matthew 5: 9


Rev. Peter DeGroote


Today is the first Sunday after Pentecost and you can say that the ball is in our court.  What I mean by that is Pentecost is the final big celebration of the Christian year. The Christian year starts with Advent, and then we go to Christmas and the seasons of Christmas, and then we go to Epiphany.  Then we go to Lent, and then we have Easter, and finally we come to Pentecost.  At Pentecost, we proclaim that the Holy Spirit is in the church.  We proclaim that God is present with us, as we are here. God is present with us  in our community.  


So, the ball is in our court.  The question is: what do we do about it?  If we are to proclaim God is with us, what do we do about it?  I began to answer that question by noting that the United Methodist Church proclaimed the first Sunday after Pentecost would be Peace with Justice Sunday.  So, in our tradition, that seems to be pretty important and a good place to start, although there are many ways to go.  That led me to this passage from Matthew, the beatitude: “Blessed are the peacemakers, they shall be called the children of God.”


Now, over the last couple of decades there have been all sorts of attempts to translate these beatitudes into different words, particularly that first word, “blessed,” in ways that I have never been comfortable with.  The one that bothers me the most is the word “happy,” which one finds in some of the common language translations. 


The beatitudes, or the blessings, come from a long biblical tradition that stretches way back into the beginning of our traditions and, to make it brief, the heart of the beatitudes rests in the theology of covenant.  All covenants are efforts to define the meaning of two concepts: first, righteousness and, second, justice. 


Righteousness means a right relationship with God, a harmonious relationship with God, loving God.  A harmonious relationship with God results in justice, for we share God’s concerns and God’s interests, because we are interested in living in harmony with others. We are interested in loving God and loving others.  In brief, we are truly interested in the welfare, the well-being, and the wholeness of all other people – that’s justice.  When we are concerned with justice, we are concerned with the nature of our community, we are concerned with how it is structured and we are concerned that there are people who are hungry and shouldn’t be.  When we are concerned with justice, we acknowledge that all folks have a right to their full participation in society and to the necessities of life. 


Righteousness and justice are at the heart of all covenants.  It goes well beyond the stuff of lawyers and courts.  The operative word in covenant is “shalom,” or peace. If the covenant is kept, the community knows peace.  The greeting “shalom” means, “may God’s peace be with you.” In this context, then, when we say “blessed are the peacemakers,” we are saying “God is with the peacemakers.” The peacemaker is the one who maintains righteousness. God is with the peacemaker. The peacemaker is the one who maintains harmony with God’s children.  The peacemaker is one who keeps the covenant. Blessed is the peacemaker. God is with the peacemaker.  The peacemaker is a child of God. A child of God is the one who has kept the covenant. In that tradition, that is the understanding of these beatitudes. 


Now, to be a peacemaker in this day and age is difficult, almost inconceivable how we can do it.  But I have been looking for a model to help us begin to think about this.  And I say begin to think. The title I used was “Exploring Peace.” All I’m doing is exploring, perhaps struggling


But one of things that I have noticed is the extreme similarity, the immense parallels between what is in Iraq today and what was in the Palestine of Jesus’ day. Let’s think about that a minute.


Palestine was dominated by an overwhelming world power about which there was nearly universal resentment.  Palestine was run by local leaders who held power only with the assistance of that empire. There had been a long history of violence and oppression. There was great conflict between various religion sects that frequently broke out into violence. Some were organized to assassinate military, civilian and religious leaders. Many had left the country for a better life elsewhere. Widespread poverty was at the root of a sense of helplessness that caused many to listen to insurgent leaders who promise to drive out the empire, destroy the leaders who cooperated with it, and re-establish a new nation of God. There were several insurgencies in the three decades preceding Jesus, and they continued long after Jesus.


The similarities between Palestine of Jesus’ day and the Iraq of our day are unnerving, made even more so by the awareness that I am a citizen of the nation that is considered to play the role of Rome, the overwhelming empire.


Quite frankly, in the many discussions we have about it, we all go in many very different ways. But I find myself having to put myself into a position of making sure the fundamentals, making sure the foundations upon which I am thinking and acting are in place.


In this exploration, I suggest to you three things: a principle, a practice and a way. These are three things that may help us keep some of the fundamentals with us as we proceed.


First of all, a principle. It’s worth keeping in mind the phrase “peace with justice” is an extremely ambiguous term, because it raises the question: whose justice? In Iraq today, there are many versions of justice. We certainly have our version. Our version of justice is used to frame all of our news reporting and all the information we receive. But other people’s versions of justice see things much differently.


Our political leadership enjoys using the quote attributed to Jesus: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” But there is another quote attributed to Jesus: “If you’re not against us, you’re with us.” Now when you meditate on those two things, you realize that they go in opposite directions. Now, unless Jesus was mildly schizophrenic, we’re going to have to make a choice between which one Jesus said. It’s not very hard to realize that if you’re not against me, you’re with me is much more in harmony with all the other teachings of Jesus than the other. It makes room for discussion. It makes room for diversity. It makes room for exploration. It makes room for a sense of freedom with other people. It releases us from the stiffness of certain forms and structures that we so often feel that we get ourselves into.


I want to illustrate this principle and the best way I could think of to do it is to ask you to sing a hymn. If we can look at number 437, “This is My Song.” I have always thought that this is one of the best hymns of peace that I have ever sung. But we’re only going to sing the first two verses, the verses that Lloyd Stone wrote.


This is my home, the country where my heart is;

here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;

but other hearts in other lands are beating

with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.


In the 1930’s, Georgia Harkness, a woman whose memory I greatly honor, a woman who accomplished a great deal in the face of great opposition, felt a need to write the third verse to this hymn, felt a need to make sure that it is a Christian hymn, to give a slant to it that many Christians agreed with and still do. Here, Georgia Harkness wrote:


This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms:

Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.

Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,

and hearts united learn to live as one.


Her solution to peace was to evangelize the whole world for Christ. Now we know that that’s not going to happen, and even if it did, it would get a little dangerous because, you know, when you get a lot of Christians together, all they do is start fighting.


So, the point I am trying to make is that this peace with justice needs to be tempered a bit with the principle that we are not always right, that we need to listen to other people’s sense of justice, that we need to understand, that we need to know that our way of life is not necessarily the most civilized and superior way of life despite all of its uniqueness, all of its blessings, all of its wealth. We need to cool our heels a little bit. We need to figure out why there are people who hate us. That seems to me an important principle if we are going to proceed with understanding how our faith works in making peace. It is something we must do to become peacemakers.


Second is the practice. It seems to me that we need to practice to take Jesus’ teachings about war seriously. Now, early on in human history, there developed the rule “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” It was an attempt to quell the warfare between tribes and families. It was circular. I always think about this group down in West Virginia when I was younger. These two families were always fighting; they never stopped: the Hatfields and McCoys. The rule “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” was an attempt to establish some sense of equity. If I damage you in some way, you have just as much right to damage me equally. If you damage my tribe or my family in some way, I have a right to damage your tribe or your family in the same way. In some way, it created a loose stability. But we all know Jesus said: “You have heard it said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you is forgive…pray.”


Now we have to begin to deal with this. The earliest of Christians did not support the notion of warfare. You couldn’t be a soldier and be a Christian, early on. That changed by the third century. Since the third century, this teaching of Jesus has been largely ignored by most Christians and by the church in general. We don’t know what to do with it. Our answer to it is the theory of the just war. If you read the theory of the just war, you realize after it’s all over, and you have finished reading it all, it’s just a very sophisticated version of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”


I recently came across an interesting comment in reading James J. O’Donnell’s new biography of Augustine. James J. O’Donnell is a professor at Georgetown University. He describes how Augustine was one of the people who started the process of thinking and laid the foundations for the just war theory. But he also pointed out that early on in the discussion, Augustine was asked by someone, “May I defend myself when I am attacked?” His answer was, “No, you must follow Jesus’ example. You can defend others. You can defend others, but you cannot defend yourself. You can die for others, but you cannot die for yourself.” That is the foundation of the principle upon which we have sent soldiers off to war ever since. You can go off to war and die for others. But the problem with the logic is Jesus wouldn’t send them off to war.


I don’t know the answer to these things. My title is “Exploring Peace.” But I do know that we’ve got to deal with these things and we cannot ignore the teachings of Jesus if we are to say that we are followers of Jesus with any sense of integrity. We can’t ignore it. We must figure out how it works out, in our lives, in our thinking, in our politics and everything else about us.


Last, I suggest a way, a way of life that takes seriously the planting of seeds. You can describe Jesus’ life in all sorts of ways, but one of the more popular ways was to say that Jesus was planting seeds. He went through life showing people how to do things. He went through life setting examples.


One of his parables is the parable of the mustard seed in which the mustard seed is planted and it grows into a very large bush, some say a tree, in which the birds of the air can find protection, safety, security in hard times, in difficult times. But, yet, they can fly out into the world from that safety and security and they take with them some of the seeds of that mustard bush so that the mustard bush spreads. One of the characteristics of the mustard bush in the Middle East is that they are sort of like our dandelions. If left uncontrolled, they will just take over a whole landscape.  


That’s what Jesus said. He said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It grows into a bush, provides protection and safety. It keeps generating if you folks would just stop pulling it up.


We need to find ways to make our church a place of safety and security. We need to find ways to make our lives places of safety and security. We need to find ways to make our friendships and our homes places of safety and security, so that when anybody comes into contact with us, not only do they feel safe and secure, but they have seeds to take somewhere else.


Now, we’re moving into our time of prayer, and I would like to make a transition between my sermon and this time of prayer by singing one other hymn, number 431 – “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”