Sermon by Rev. Dr. Gary Charles
Today is not only World Communion Sunday, it is Peacemaking Sunday. Yet, in the face of a global pandemic that sends us to worship at Cove Creek Park rather than in the intimate, familiar confines of Cove Presbyterian Church, in a nation so divided that it cannot even decide on whether to wear a mask or to get a vaccine when available, in a society in which skin color is a major factor in housing and education, in jobs and security, in a year when elections divide even families, how can we who claim to follow the Prince of Peace do anything other than testify to the impossibility of peace breaking out today?
In concept, peace is much like love; everyone is in favor of it. In reality, though, peace is perhaps the hardest work to which Christians ever commit themselves to do. It is painfully elusive and it always requires hard work, deep listening, genuine justice and often gut-wrenching forgiveness.
Just take a quick stroll through our own family faith story. No sooner do the man and woman inherit the beauty and serenity of Eden then they disturb the peace by grabbing what is not rightfully theirs and then casting blame on anyone but themselves. No sooner does Cain hear that God prefers Abel’s sacrifice then Cain murders his brother. No sooner does Esau leave work then his brother Jacob conspires with his mother to steal his father Isaac’s blessing. No sooner does David covet Bathsheba then he orchestrates the murder of her husband. The stories of unfulfilled peace litter the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament.
Thank God it is easier for those of us who also have the New Testament in our back pockets to pray for and to make peace. Well, sadly, that is not true either. No sooner is the Prince of Peace born in Bethlehem then Herod sends in troops to exterminate all first-born sons. No sooner is Jesus arrested then Peter pulls out his sword and cuts off the ear of Malchus. No sooner does Paul leave the town of Corinth then the church divides into competing camps, each demeaning and questioning the faith of the others.
The Bible does not offer us a secret mantra for peace. On the contrary, it shows us how hard it is to keep the peace. Even so, from start to finish, the Bible reveals that God’s undeterred dream is that you and I do more than keep the peace, but that you and I wage peace.
So, what exactly does it look like to wage peace? Our family faith story offers us some memorable clues. In Luke, two troubled sons are met by a loving father who forgives and welcomes home the prodigal son and then invites the eldest son to see that his father’s love that has always been there for him. In John, Jesus has a close encounter not only with a hated Samaritan, but a hated Samaritan woman in broad daylight. He offers a treasured place in the heart of God to a no-count woman from the most hated race and place on earth. If you want clues on how to wage peace, read the fifteenth chapter of Luke and the fourth chapter of John.
One of the most memorable illustrations of waging peace, though, is not found in the New Testament. In a tale often overlooked in Genesis, we are told a remarkable story of peace and reconciliation. Years earlier, Abraham and Sarah are barren and frustrated in their desire to have children. So, at Sarah’s insistence, Abraham fathers a child with Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar. The child is named Ishmael – considered by many as the father of the Arabs.
The story takes a harsh turn when Sarah gives birth to Isaac, the “son of laughter.” She insists that Abraham rid himself of Hagar and their son, Ishmael. In one of the most tragic scenes in Scripture, Abraham honors Sarah’s wishes; he sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, seemingly to their deaths, while Isaac remains safely at home. Throughout his life, Isaac enjoys the privileges of the silver spoon son, even though he is the second born son of Abraham. By God’s graceful intervention, Ishmael survives the desert, and lives to eke out an existence with no help from his father and no promise of a future inheritance, even though he is Abraham’s first-born son.
In our story from Genesis, years have passed. Sarah has died. And now, Abraham dies. So, who signs the guest book at the funeral? In verses that rarely receive the attention they deserve, Genesis tells us, “Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah . . . with his wife Sarah.” At the funeral, Abraham’s son of promise, Isaac, and his son of rejection, Ishmael, stand on common ground to commit their father’s body to holy ground.
Some say that this side of heaven, there will never be anything resembling peace, so why bother working for it. They say that there will never be an enduring peace in the Middle East, peace in our country between people of different skin tones, peace between people of different political persuasion, peace between those who love in different ways. And, yet if Isaac and Ishmael could find a way to stand on common ground surely God can still work through ancestors of Sarah and Abraham to accomplish that purpose despite all that works against it.
If we truly believe that “God so loves the world,” then you and I can never settle for, much less work for any kind of peace that is just for us but hardly just for others. The Reverend William Sloane Coffin once spoke: “Peace . . . does not come rolling in on the wheels of inevitability. We cannot just wish for peace. We have to will it, fight for it, suffer for it, demand it from our governments as if peace were God’s most cherished hope for humanity, as indeed it is” (Credo, p. 93). As disciples of the Prince of Peace, it is our high and holy calling to use every ounce of faith God has given us to wage peace.
The final image of peace from our family faith story looks anything but peaceful. It comes near the end of the book of Revelation. A rider in white mounts a blood-stained saddle as he heads to do battle on earth. Many of the images of war are here: the steady stead, the flowing blood, the deadly sword, the hoard of armies, but as always in Revelation these traditional images are contorted and turned on their head.
In Chapter 19, John shares a vision of a sword that does not slice human flesh, but slices away the fat of deceit that tries to pass for peace. John tells of a battle, already won, where the Slain Lamb of God overcomes all the feeble reasons that humans give for why peace is impossible, peace is unachievable. In John’s vision, armies of heaven bring devastation to all within us and the world that would diminish God’s determined desire for peace.
Should John take over this sermon today, I have no doubt that he would call us to wage peace. Wage peace, sisters and brothers, against those fueling the flames of hate and division in America today; wage peace against those fueling the flames of racism in our land; wage peace against men who abuse their wives and women and men who abuse their children; wage peace against national leaders who forget that we are largely a nation of immigrants; wage peace against the insidious assault on the working poor in our land who increasingly live with minimal to no health care and earn less than a living wage; wage peace by denying no one access to the Lord’s table, because this table does not belong to us and you and I are not in charge of the invitation list.
When we wage peace, we wield the most powerful sword on earth, the sword of God’s justice and mercy. As children of the Prince of Peace, you and I are called to wage peace tirelessly, especially when the drums of division and fear are beating the loudest and people are labeling us as meddlers or simple-minded or naïve. Let people label us as they will, for the only label that finally matters is the one that Christ confers on those who devote their lives to waging peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”