The post below is based on my sermon for October 28, 2018, which was written that morning in response to the events of the previous week.
This past week we’ve seen some terrible things. In Kentucky a white man traveled to a black church with the intention of perpetrating a mass shooting, only to wind up killing to black shoppers in a supermarket when he found the church doors locked. Pipe bombs were sent through the mail to particularly vocal opponents of President Trump, who then blamed the hatred which led to this act of terrorism on “the media.” And yesterday a man went in to a synagogue, convinced of two things through political rhetoric by – that refugees are invading monsters, and those who support them are enemies of the country. He murdered a dozen people. And why a synagogue? Because to this man, America can’t be great again until the Jews are removed from power.
I’ve had enough.
And so today I want to preach on one verse, Matthew 5:9, and ask us one question, “Do we believe it?” Here’s the verse.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matt. 5:9 NRSV
Now, a lot of people believe that peace is the absence of violence or conflict. Which is why, when events like the shooting in Pittsburgh occur, you’ll often hear people call for more guns. Because if people think they’ll get shot before they can do any “real damage 1” they’ll be less likely to attempt to commit mass murder. It’s also why people will tell black communities not to protest when yet another unarmed black man is killed by a police officer 2. And too often these black men are shot because the underlying cultural assumption in the United States is that black men are dangerous by default. “Now is not the time for anger,” I hear people say. And it’s why, in “polite society” we aren’t supposed to talk about politics or religion. “It creates divisions” is what we’re told.
But people being worried about getting shot before they can shoot others isn’t peace, neither is putting a lid on a community’s anger over centuries of injustice or avoiding “taboo” topics. These things aren’t peace, they’re just quiet – and the kind of quiet which is born of fear.
Peace isn’t simply the absence of violence or conflict. The New Testament concept is, in fact, born from the Hebrew idea known as “shalom.” A state in which people are living rightly one to another and with God and with all that God has made. Shalom is the fertile soil in which righteousness can thrive – which, when in full bloom, brings with it justice that restores relationships and a quiet born not from fear but from contentment.
We don’t know peace in this country right now, because the fertile soil of peace is being poisoned by fear, hatred, and insecurity. Righteousness cannot take root when xenophobia is searing people’s souls, causing them to ignore a truth which applies to all human beings. The alien and stranger, whether they are living next door or are part of a caravan fleeing from violence in their home countries, is the image of God. To be xenophobic is to deny the image of God exists in “those people.” Xenophobia denies the existential reality of God as described in 1 John, “God is love.”
See once we come to the conclusion that “those people” aren’t really God’s image, at least not in the way we are, it’s not difficult to stop thinking of “those people” as people all. That conclusion is where all this violence is drawing its energy from. We will never have peace while xenophobia grips the land – if we keep enough people in a state of fear we may achieve an absence of violence, but that’s just not good enough. That is not a world I want live in, nor is it one I want my children to inherit. We need peace, more than we possibly know.
And so this morning I beg all of us to understand a truth which we must not ignore. It is not good enough to see something like the MAGAbomber or the Synagogue shooter and say, “Well that’s terrible.” It’s not enough to respond to these acts of violence by sharing a meme on Facebook, or writing a blog post, or preaching a sermon on the nature of peace. Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the peace-theorizers.” Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers.” If we want peace to seep through the cracks in the walls that people make around their hearts – we have to, by the power of the Holy Spirit, make it. And we make it by confronting poison, with both Jesus’s forthrightness and grace, when it encounter it. We can’t let latent racism, overt fear-mongering, and propaganda meant to inspire anxiety stand unchallenged. These things must be confronted and told in no uncertain terms, “No.”
Nor can we challenge these things using the same tool-kit utilized by fear-mongers, because that won’t bring peace, just another version of the same poison. Instead, when we confront of the poison of our age we must direct people back toward love – to see the image of God dwelling in the very people those who have been provoked by fear want to hate. In the short run, this will win us few friends. And, in fact, it might make life difficult for us because people who hear our defiance may double-down on their fear and hatred and xenophobia. Jesus himself hints at this in the three verses right after “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matt. 5:10-12 NRSV
If we take up Jesus’ calling as peacemakers I can’t guarantee us health or wealth or lots of friends. I can’t even guarantee that we’ll see any signs that we are being successful because the entire weight of this world seems to be against peace. But I can guarantee one thing. Should we commit to live our lives as peacemakers – rather than quiet keepers – the Living Lord of Heaven and Earth, who on the cross conquered the very powers with which we contend, will go with us. So let’s leave this place in his name, and tell the demonic poison of xenophobia – expressed through racism, anti-immigrant fear, and anti-semitism – to go to hell, where it belongs. Amen.