Today, I was blessed to preach at the church that raised me. It was an honor and privilege to be among them today. The service went great and people loved hearing what I had to say. For those of you who couldn't physically be there, here's the text of my sermon. Hope it brings you some comfort during these turbulent times. Scripture texts were Micah 4: 1-4 and Matthew 5: 7-12
My name is Javier. I am 10 years old and I am from the country of El Salvador. El Salvador is a country that has been wracked by violence and bloodshed for over 30 years now. Many of my friends have lost relatives due to the extreme violence. My own parents were murdered just last week. I was told that I needed to get out of El Salvador and head north to the United States, where I would be kept safe and free from violence. Instead, I’m being kept back at the border and told that because I’m an immigrant, I’m not welcome in this country. I thought the United States was a land where immigrants could come and be free and safe from their own countries. Now, I have men at the border pointing their guns at me and threatening to kill me if I attempt to cross.
My name is Kat. I am 22 years old. Last year, I came out to my parents as bisexual. They didn’t take the news well. In fact, they kicked me out of the house and told me I was not welcome to come back. Now, I’m homeless and forced to live on the streets. Did I mention I’m from Chicago, a city that is supposedly progressive and inclusive? How could this have happened then to me? Why don’t my parents love me for who I am? How could they do this to their own daughter? Why am I forced to live on the streets? It gets cold here in Chicago in the winter and I am forced to find some sort of shelter during those months. Last month, I was verbally harassed by a police officer. Two weeks ago, I was sexually assaulted by a man who thought that because I was homeless, it meant I didn’t mind being taken advantage of. No one should have to live like this. No one.
My name is Jonas. I’m 15 years old. Last month, my best friend was shot dead in another school shooting in another town in the United States. He was one of 15 victims. What’s sad is how little press coverage his death got. School shootings are so commonplace now that nobody really even bothers to report on them anymore. They have become just another fact of life. It saddens me that the life of my best friend and my other classmates weren’t worthy of being mentioned on the evening news, as if their lives weren’t important enough to warrant coverage. Why did this happen here? Why does this happen anywhere? Why are the lives of our citizens not worth more to our politicians and lawmakers? Why is my best friend dead and no one is being held accountable?
The stories you just heard are, in part at least, fictional. Javier, Kat and Jonas are just characters I made up in my imagination. However, the stories they share are, sadly, all too real and important. In our New Testament reading today, we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Let’s think about that line for a second. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Um, really? When I look at this scripture text and then read the news headlines, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus would still be saying this in our modern times.
You’ve read the stories, I’m sure. About Gaza and Russia and Ukraine and South Sudan and Venezuela and Iraq and Syria and El Salvador and it becomes increasingly clear that we live in unstable and violent times where peace is really hard to find and where people who try to make peace are seen as irrelevant and useless and not as important. We live in a world that glorifies war. We live in a world that is constantly showing us images of terror and violence and death. In our country alone, there have been 74 school shootings since Newtown, CT and our government has done absolutely nothing to address this. Children are fearing for their lives and are being gunned down every single day and yet we are so beholden to the gun lobby and so in love with our guns that we can’t even see that our current ways of living are not doing anyone any favors.
Is this the world where the peacemakers are blessed? A world where we give medals to people who kill others in combat and call them heroes? A world where we execute murderers so we can prove that we are tough on violence? A world where we tell children like Javier that they need to return to their own countries because we don’t want them draining our resources? A world where LGBTQ people like Kat are still subject to bodily harm and even death in more countries than we can count?
This world is where peacemakers are blessed? Really, this one? It sure doesn’t seem like it to me. I’d love to hear what Jesus would have to say to us now. I’d like to think that even he would just give up, throw in the towel and retire to a house in the woods and live in exile. It would certainly be easier to believe that.
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.” It’s a great passage, isn’t it? One that pacifists love to trot out all the time to justify why they are against war and violence. Yet, I’ve seen no evidence either in our modern times or even our ancient times about this ever being the case. We are a world that knows how to conduct war all too well. As a friend of mine recently put it, “I used to believe the world could change. I’m not so sure anymore.” It’s hard not to agree with that sentiment, especially when looking at our own history.
Two weeks ago, I traveled to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to attend a week-long retreat with prominent Celtic theologian John Philip Newell. We spent a week in the desert talking about God and participating in silent meditative walks through the beautiful landscape there. It was during one of these walks that we were asked to reflect on the statement, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We were asked to think about what that means to us and our context.
I spent my walk observing the beauty of where we were. I spent my time reflecting on just how much natural beauty there is in the world. It gave me a sense of inner peace. That’s when I realized something. Perhaps Jesus isn’t talking about external peace, a peace that is so rare and increasingly hard to find. Perhaps Jesus was instead referring to an inner peace, the kind of peace that comes along only when we search for it. I’ve discovered that when you are at peace within yourself, it is very hard to have any desire to seek revenge against others. Perhaps that’s the kind of peace that we ought to be pursuing, a peace that calms our hearts and quiets our fears. A peace that results in contentment, not anger. A peace that comes about through Jesus and through our belief that Jesus is working in our hearts and in our world to make everything better.
Last weekend, I went to Indiana for a retreat that I look forward to every year. It is a retreat for all LGBTQ people that are in the Presbyterian ordination process. This is a community that knows all too well the sort of violence and hatred that others in the church are capable of. This is a community that knows personal stories of being rejected and abused by others. This is a community that could easily give up on the church. Many have. Yet, many of us have chosen to stay with it and are continuing to seek ordination in the church. Perhaps we’re crazy. Perhaps we’re weird. Perhaps we do it because we know that we can find some sense of inner peace and contentment through each other. We support each other, love each other, help each other through the process and in that helping, we start to find some sense of peace about everything.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Perhaps that’s the kind of peacemaking we should be pursuing: inner peace. We can help each other get there. I can’t help but wonder what our world would look like if we started helping each other achieve inner peace. Maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to strike back in anger against each other. Maybe our children could go to school and feel safe. Maybe in our own quest for contentment, we might find that the world actually is capable of changing and our own inner cynicism and bitterness will melt away.
Let me clarify something here that I know is perhaps nagging at some of you. I’m not at all advocating for a withdrawal from the world or for us to focus only on ourselves and not on the problems of the world, vast as they are. What I’m instead advocating for is a different approach, an approach that emphasizes our own inner capabilities to change the world. When we find inner peace, we thus strive for outer peace. When we are at peace within ourselves, it can spur us on to action, action that will bring peace to others like Javier and Kat and Jonas. What might that action look like?
Best selling author Anne Lamott recently posted a compelling answer to that very question on her Facebook page: “I know that if I want to have loving feelings, I need to do loving things. It begins by putting your own oxygen mask on first: I try to keep the patient comfortable. I do the next right thing: left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe. I think Jesus had a handle on times like these: get thirsty people water. Feed the hungry. Try not to kill anyone today. Pick up some litter in your neighborhood. Lie with your old dog under the bed and tell her what a good job she is doing with the ruptured ear drum. I try to quiet the drunken Russian separatists of my own mind, with their good ideas. I pray. I meditate. I rest, as a spiritual act. I spring for organic cherries. I return phone calls.
I remember the poor. I remember an image of Koko the sign-language gorilla, with the caption, "Law of the American Jungle: remain calm. Share your bananas." I remember Hushpuppy at the end of Beasts of the Southern Wild, just trying to take some food home to her daddy Wink, finally turning to face the hideous beast on the bridge, facing it down and saying, "I take care of my own."
I take care of my own. You are my own, and I am yours--I think this is what God is saying, or trying to, over the din. We are each other's. There are many forms of thirst, many kinds of water.”
Beloved, we are each other’s angels. So, take care of each other. Don’t let this crazy, violent, topsy-turvy world get you down. Find inner peace. Find contentment. Help others find theirs. If you see a homeless person on the street, help them. Offer them a hand up. If you hear about a school shooting on the news, find out what you can do to help the victims and survivors. If you hear about violence toward others trying to immigrate to the United States, ask yourself what you can do to be a part of the solution, not the problem.
Maybe it won’t do any good. Maybe tomorrow, Javier will still not be able to immigrate across the border. Maybe Kat will still be homeless. Maybe Jonas will still be grieving the loss of his best friend. Somehow, though, I think our efforts to find peace, real peace will do some good in the long run. I think it is worth trying anyway at least for the sake of Javier and Kat and Jonas. They deserve better. We deserve better. We can do better.
“Now, go answer your calling. Go and fill somebody’s cup. When you see an angel falling, won’t you stop and help them up? We are each other’s angels and we meet when it is time. We keep each other going and we show each other signs.”