Psalm 34:1-14 (New Living Translation)
I will praise the Lord at all times. I will constantly speak his praises. I will boast only in the Lord; let all who are helpless take heart. Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness; let us exalt his name together. I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles. For the angel of the Lord is a guard; he surrounds and defends all who fear him. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! Fear the Lord, you his godly people, for those who fear him will have all they need. Even strong young lions sometimes go hungry, but those who trust in the Lord will lack no good thing. Come, my children, and listen to me, and I will teach you to fear the Lord. Does anyone want to live a life that is long and prosperous? Then keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies! Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it.
Up there with a cure for cancer and winning the lottery, it is one of the things people pray for the most. Peace for our world. Peace for our country. Peace for our communities. Peace for our families.
And, at the very same time, it is one of the things that seems most distant from our grasp. Unattainable. Impossible. Peace.
We know — we know — what it should look like: a world where no one looks down the end of a gunbarrel, knowing that life is about to end; a world where no one faces starvation; where no one is abused by those who should love them. A world where all people are known, cared for, valued.
There are nights when I, quite literally, dream of peace. In the space between wakings, my imagination, my subconscious, my longings, take me to a vision of a world where all is right, where we are all tender and caring and kind. Where sin is no more and where peace reigns.
And that is why it is so painful for me to wake up on those mornings, when I’ve dreamed of something so beautiful, and to stumble out into the living room to turn on the television. Because in that half-hour of news I watch as I wake up, sipping my morning tea, I see visions of a world where peace does not reign, where so much seems wrong; where hatred overflows into the streets and seeps into the homes; where we are cynical and uncaring and even cruel.
And that is why it is painful for me to walk out into our world, knowing that the world around us is not in reality that dream world of peace. It is not, in reality, what God desires for us.
And that breaks my heart.
We see stories of anger and abuse and alienation, division and discord, vilification and violence. We watch people whom God created and loves doing great harm to people whom God created and loves. All people for whom Jesus died.
And that — routinely now it seems — breaks my heart.
But that is why it is not painful for me to walk into this place, this family of faith, where I see in you a glimpse of that dream world of peace, right here on earth. Not just in the varied hues of your skin, or the melodies of your accents, but in your tenderness toward each other, in your caring, in your kindness. I see in you a glimpse of that dream world of peace as together you strive to understand God better, learning from each other, being patient with each other, spurring each other on, encouraging each other.
I see in you a glimpse of that dream of peace.
And that is why it is painful for me
to realize just how fragile
what you have built here really could be.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said to a people who had gathered on a hillside to hear him speak. “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
From two Greek words: eirēnē (peace) and poieó (to make). Eirēnē — Peace. But not just an absence of war, of bloodshed, of conflict. Eirēnē — Peace. Meaning wholeness. When all the essential parts are pulled to work together. When what was so deeply divided is brought together in love. When brokenness is healed. Peacemaker. Eirēnē. And poieó: to make, to construct. Poieó: to act, to cause, to commit, to do.
Jesus calls us to be
makers of completeness.
Constructors of wholeness.
Doers of peace.
In our scripture reading today, the psalmist asks this question in verse 12: “Does anyone want to live a life that is long and prosperous?” Now, that’s a question with a pretty obvious answer, right? If I were to ask you this morning, “Does anyone here want to live a life that is long and prosperous,” how many of you would raise your hands? Seriously, would any of you not raise your hands? A life that is long and prosperous? Sign me up!
The Hebrew word translated as “prosperous” is tov. If you’ve ever heard someone being congratulated on a significant life event by the phrase “Mazel tov!” it literally means “good fortune.” Tov means beautiful, the best. It means goodness in all its fullness and variety.
And then, as a way of living that prosperous life, we hear the command in verse 14: “Turn away from evil and do good. Search for peace, and work to maintain it.” That word for peace in Hebrew — shalom — has the same rich meaning as eirēnē in Greek: the unfinished made complete, the divided made whole.
And I see in you a glimpse of that dream of goodness and peace.
Because… right here, in this sanctuary we have people with different perspectives, different deeply-held views on just about every subject imaginable. All worshipping together, learning together, serving together.
Sitting here with you today are Republicans and Democrats, Independents and Libertarians, so many flavors of political party. You may be sitting next to someone who has voted in every election since they were first eligible, or someone who hasn’t ever registered to vote.
We are diverse, not only in politics, not only in ethnicity, but in theology, as well. We have brothers and sisters in faith here who are theologically conservative, theologically liberal, theologically right-in-the-middle, theologically just not sure and pretty undecided.
We have, in this family of faith,
people who feel deeply, strongly
about social issues facing our world today,
and the conclusions to which they have come
through study and prayer and thought,
have led them to hold positions
which might well be very different
from the conclusions to which you have come
through study and prayer and thought.
But I have witnessed firsthand the ability of people in this family of faith to have a real, honest conversation about difficult, challenging subjects — with respect and care and grace.
Which is beautiful and amazing.
As you are beautiful and amazing.
But that is, again, why it is painful for me to realize just how fragile what you have built here really could be.
Because peace? It isn’t something that occurs naturally in our world, in our country, our communities, our families… or in our church. It’s something that we have to want, to fight for, to work for.
Because peace? It can be shattered in an instant.
There are many nights when I wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, thinking of the challenges that lay ahead for us as a church. And I’ve thought how ironic it is that the pronunciation of that Greek word for peace — eirēnē — sounds so much like our English word "irony."
Because we talk about that peace — that shalom, that eirēnē, that wholeness, that completeness — in the midst of the reality of the world that is anything but.
And we live in a world that is pressuring us to join in the brokenness. Now hear me: I’m not talking about the world pressuring us to enter into the brokenness to offer healing and hope. We’re called to do that.
I’m talking about the pressure to become broken ourselves. To break this family of faith.
And it could happen so frighteningly easily. It could take one scandal. One dispute. One act of violence. One controversy. And that glimpse of a world of peace we see here, it could vanish.
Here’s just one example. And it’s one of the things — not the only thing, mind you, but one of the things — that wake me up in the middle of the night. By now you may have heard about the Methodist Church’s “Commission on a Way Forward.” At the 2016 General Conference (the worldwide gathering of UMC leaders), this Commission was created to examine what the Book of Discipline (our church law book) says about human sexuality and to make a recommendation for any possible revisions.
This Commission’s discussions have already led to news headlines like: “Schism threat has some churches caught in middle” or “Will the Methodists Split Over Homosexuality?” or “Could LGBT debate split Methodists?”
And here’s the thing. No matter what the Commission eventually recommends, no matter what the called General Conference next year decides to do, no matter what, this issue… it’s coming. It’s here already.
I hadn’t actually intended to talk about this today. Originally, my sermon was going to go in a very different direction. But, right here and right now, I can see the potentiality for cracks forming in the peace. And because I love you all so very much, I can’t not address it.
This Thursday in our weekly E-News email blast, we included a notice about a gathering initiated by the Florida Conference, called “A Point of View Conversation.” It’s also in the bulletin this morning. I didn’t know about this gathering until I received an email about it last week, which was sent to all the District’s pastors. We were asked to let our congregations that it was being offered, as a place to talk about the Commission on the Way Forward.
Almost immediately, I started hearing back.
Some members of our family of faith — who I love and respect — shared with me their concerns that the church was heading in the direction of condoning sin, and not living out the truth of the gospel.
Other members — who I love and respect — shared with me their concerns that the church was heading in the direction of excluding and harming people, and not living out the truth of the gospel.
I have spoken to people in our congregation who feel strongly, passionately about this issue. On both sides. People who love God, who love the people around them, who are committed to following Christ, to growing in faith, to serving in love… and who believe the exact opposite of someone who might be sitting right near them.
And that is why it is painful for me to realize just how fragile what we have built here really is.
Because “searching for peace and working to maintain it”? It is not easy. And we have to want it. And we have to believe that it is possible.
With that in mind I’m going to admit something to you that may make you uncomfortable, or perhaps even mad. There are times when I am super tempted to give up, to throw in the towel.
Times when I look at all that is happening in our world, when I look at the challenges facing the church, and I think, “I can’t do it. What difference can I possibly make?” I wonder, “How are we going to walk through this together, with the division and brokenness we’re already seeing in our denomination?”
Although I love what I do, and so love where I do it. Although I love you all, although I love you and your incredible hearts, I still occasionally feel like giving up.
Then at those lowest of moments, I hear a small voice in my head. No, not God’s still, small voice. It’s the voice of a little girl on YouTube named Ryan Ramirez...
Don’t stop! Don’t give up! That is what being a peace-maker — an eirēnē-maker, a shalom-maker — means. Never stopping. Never giving up.
“Search for peace and work to maintain it,” the psalmist tells us. It is not easy. And we have to want it. And I DO believe that it is possible. Even in the midst of the toughest, most painful, most divisive issues. And we cannot give up.
If you hear nothing else from what I’ve said here this morning, please here this: peace — completeness, wholeness, healing — is possible. It is possible because we have a God who loves us, and who desires peace for us.
The author of Psalm 34 starts out with these words: I will praise the Lord at all times. I will constantly speak his praises. I will boast only in the Lord; let all who are helpless take heart. Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness; let us exalt his name together. I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces.
Facing the challenges in our world on our own, we will fail. Working for peace purely relying on our own strength, our own wisdom, our own courage, we will fail. We can have a vision of peace, we can have the strength to struggle, to cry, to learn, to stretch ourselves, because of God’s promise to work with us.
"I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces."
I am dreaming of peace, praying for peace — for our world, our country, our community, our families, our church home.
And that is exactly why we are starting this Fight Hate Live Love initiative just three days from now. On Wednesday we begin our season of Lent — the 40 days leading up to Easter — a time of introspection, contemplation, and repentance. It’s a time for taking a deep, hard look at ourselves, at our lives, at our world … and coming to terms with where we’re broken.
And many of you have already committed to praying for God to guide us through these turbulent times, to show us the way to go, to grant us God’s strength, God’s wisdom, God’s courage.
"Blessed are the peacemakers”, Jesus said. Blessed are those who do the hard, long, intensive, heart-rending work of reaching into the brokenness, and seeking God’s peace in the midst of it all.
Don’t stop. Don’t give up.
Don’t stop seeking God’s will.
Don’t give up on what God has planned.
I see in you a glimpse of that beautiful world of wholeness, of peace.
And that is why I am here this morning.
And that is why I have hope.
And I thank you for that.