Isaiah 58:5-12 & Matthew 5:9

One of the strangest stories to come out of World War II is about two young men who were captured by the Americans in Germany near the end of the war. They were shipped to a POW camp in the U.S., but all attempts to communicate with them were to no avail. They would not, or could not, speak to the American authorities. They kept to themselves and refused to talk to anyone, even their fellow German prisoners. In fact, the other Germans insisted that they knew nothing about the pair. The two men seemed frightened and bewildered but not sullen or rebellious. After a few weeks in their new quarters they seemed willing to cooperate, but when they finally did speak no one could understand a word they said. Eventually, someone noticed that they didn’t really look like Germans. Their features were more Asiatic, so an expert in Asian languages was called in. He soon discovered that the two were from Tibet, and they were overjoyed that at last someone was able to understand them and hear their story.

It seems that in the summer of 1941 the two friends decided to see what the world outside their village had to offer. They crossed the northern frontier of Tibet and for weeks wandered happily in the territory of Soviet Russia. Abruptly, they were picked up by Russian authorities, put on a train with hundreds of other young men, and shipped west. Outside a large city, at an army camp, they were issued uniforms and rifles and given some rudimentary military training. After a few days, they were loaded onto trucks with other soldiers and shipped to the Russian front.

They were horrified by what they saw. Men were killing each other with artillery, rifles, even hand-to-hand fighting. Being good Buddhists, killing was against their moral principles. They started to flee to the rear of the conflict, but in their flight, they were overtaken by the Germans and made prisoners. Once again, they were loaded onto a train and shipped, this time to Germany. After the Normandy invasion, as the American forces neared Germany, they were pressed into service in the German army. As the Americans continued to advance the two were again given guns and told to fight, this time for the Germans. Once again, they tried to flee. This time they were captured by the Americans and eventually wound up in the POW camp. When they had finished their story, the interpreter asked them if they had any questions. They had only one: “Why were all those people trying to kill each other?”

Now that’s a heck of a good question, don’t you think? And not one I’m sure we have a heck of a good answer for. I’m not ignorant of history. Of course, Hitler’s madness had to be stopped. But Hitler was only one man. As crazy as he was, there’s no way he could have done all that damage by himself. Did you ever wonder why Hitler’s madness managed to infect and gain control of so many people around the world? You don’t have to wonder very long before you run into the kind of problems the human race has been trying to solve since the dawn of time. Why are all these people trying to kill each other?

And certainly, the problem isn’t just war. Hate, anger, frustration and violence take on an incredible variety of forms. These days, there seems to be conflict at every turn, and the church is, unfortunately, not immune. There’s an old cartoon I came across that shows a church board meeting with a pastor standing at the head of the table. The pastor is saying, “In light of our current hard feelings, does anyone mind if I pray with my eyes open?” Sometimes, even in the church, we have trouble getting along with one another. Fortunately, that hasn’t been much of a problem here lately. But in so many places, conflict is altogether too common. What we need is peace. We need peace so much, we find ourselves longing for and praying for peace all the time. So, when Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers…” he was speaking to what is quite possibly the single greatest human need.

I like to think of myself as a peacemaker. As a minister, you might think it simply goes with the job description. But I remember a time when I had someone call that into question. Pam and I were living in Allston, right across the river from Harvard College. I was in the middle of seminary, Sarah was nearly 2 years old and Corinne was just about to be born. We received a call from an old friend of Pam’s from Germany: Jorn Bohme. He called to say he was in the States and would like to stop by for a visit. There’s nothing quite like having your wife’s old boyfriend drop in.

Jorn, it turns out, was a fascinating guy. He worked for the peace movement in Germany for many years and had traveled extensively, working for peace in an impressive number of countries. During his stay, Jorn and I got into a pretty heavy discussion about the nature of peace. He believed that we have to change institutions if we ever hope to establish peace in the world. For my part, I argued that peace begins with individuals, and that no institutionally imposed peace will last if people aren’t peaceful inside. We spent some time arguing in a more or less friendly sort of way. Finally, the peacemaker in me came out. I told him it seemed to me that both of us were trying to accomplish the same thing but simply coming at it from different directions. Jorn, however, was not willing to concede the point, which only served to make it clear that, between the two of us, I was obviously the better peacemaker.

I do believe, though, what I was trying to tell him. Institutions are vitally important in peace work. Churches, food pantries, homeless shelters, UNICEF, Habitat for Humanity, the United Nations. Doctors Without Borders … all these and many other institutions are out there doing the critically important work of peace each and every day. But institutions are only as good or as peaceful as the people who run them.

I’m very fond of a little book called, “Being Piece” by Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master, writer and poet. He was chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist peace delegation during the Vietnam War. In his book, Being Peace, he talks about the peace movement in a very interesting way. He said:

In the peace movement, there is a lot of anger, frustration and misunderstanding. The peace movement can write very good protest letters, but they are not yet able to write a love letter…. Can the peace movement talk in loving speech, showing the way for peace? I think that will depend on whether the people in the peace movement can “be” peace. Because without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people to smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement.”

Now doesn’t that just make perfect sense. We can’t give what we don’t have. If we don’t have peace within our own hearts, we don’t have it to give away. It seems so obvious, doesn’t it? But being peaceful does not come naturally to us.

Think about it. How often do you talk about having to force yourself to do something that you know you need to do but you don’t really want to do? I have to force myself to exercise, maybe, or to stop eating or drinking or smoking so much, or to mow the lawn or do the laundry, or what have you? This is such a common way for us to talk about ourselves that we hardly even notice. But there is a deep contradiction here, and we can see it for what it is, if we just ask a simple question. Who is doing the forcing and who is being forced? Well, there’s “I” and then there’s “myself.” Lo and behold, I have two different people inside my head, and so do you! And one thinks he’s in charge, and the other is really starting to get ticked off about it. Our “I” is at war with our “self,” and that is precisely where our lack of peace begins.

St. Francis of Assisi gets a lot of credit for being the author of one of the most beautiful prayer/poems ever written: “Lord, make an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon.” Truly beautiful words. But, the peace he was talking about was not something he came to easily. A less well known part of his story is that he had once been in deep conflict over the thoughts and feelings that sometimes drifted through his mind. One story tells of a day he was walking down a path beside some thorn bushes when he began having “impure thoughts.” At that point, he threw himself into the thorns and rolled around in an effort to root out this impurity from his mind. His “I” was at war with his “self.”

And what happens, often, is that this conflict within ourselves becomes so intense and so painful that we simply can’t keep it inside. We start projecting it out into the world and blaming it on other people. It’s all the fault of those Republicans, those Democrats, those immigrants, those gays, those terrorists, those Jews, those Muslims, the wealthy, the poor, the elites, the rednecks… There is no end to the groups of people we are willing to blame, and all for the sake of not facing up to the lack of peace in our own hearts and minds.

We are at war with ourselves, but it’s a war that can’t be won. There can never truly be a victory of one side over the other when both sides are pieces of the larger whole. Within ourselves, we cannot be whole, so long as we make part of ourselves out to be the enemy. And out in the world, our humanity cannot be whole, so long as we make part of our humanity out to be the enemy. Like it or not, Democrats and Republicans are part of one another. The idea that one side can defeat the other is an illusion that is causing our country tremendous pain and suffering. We used to refer to World War One as “the Great War.” The great war of our time, is the war we are having with ourselves.

It’s no accident that we call Jesus the “Prince of Peace.” He was, I believe, totally at peace with himself, completely at peace within his own soul. So, when he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” I think he knew what he was talking about. “They will be called children of God.” But it’s important to understand what he was saying. The way this beatitude is written, it can sound like we’re supposed to become peacemakers in order to be children of God. It’s as if we were supposed to use something like Isaiah’s list of charities as our marching orders. Care for the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the oppressed and those in prison. Become repairers of the breach. And, at the end of all this good behavior, we will become children of God as a sort of reward.

But that’s exactly backwards. It is only when we know ourselves to be children of God that we begin to live out of that peacefulness Jesus was talking about. God becomes a higher power, a higher wisdom, a higher harmony within us that brings reconciliation and peace to the warring factions inside. We don’t do it in order to be blessed by God. We do it because God has already blessed us; because we’re grateful for God’s already granted love and forgiveness. When we give our lives to God, that is when we begin to “be” at peace within ourselves. That is when we can begin making peace for others.

There’s a wonderful story that serves as a good illustration of this. It’s about a man named Roland Hayes, a tremendous concert soloist who had one of the great voices of the early 20th century. To begin with though, all the odds were against him. He was born to a black family on a 15-acre cotton farm in Tennessee. His father died when he was five, after which he moved with his family to Chattanooga and began singing in a church choir. One day the choir director, a Mr. Calhoun, played a recording of Caruso and Melba, two of the great singers of the day. Roland Hayes was so moved by the music that he said, “I believe that God has called me to sing a message of peace and brotherhood around the world.” His mother replied, “Roland, you can do it, if you believe you can and if you give your life to God.” There followed a long and difficult journey, but eventually he came to be recognized for the great singer he was.

In 1924 Hayes was booked for a concert at Beethoven concert hall in Berlin, Germany. On his way to Germany, Roland stopped in Prague. He was called into the American Consul’s office and told, “You are going to have to cancel your concert. The French have taken over the Rhineland and they are holding it with troops made up of Negroes brought from America. The Germans are furious. No black skinned person will be able to sing in Germany at this time.” Hayes replied, “I will surely pray about it.” But after a few days of consideration and prayer, he couldn’t bring himself to cancel the concert.

On the night of the performance, he entered by the back door, went up on stage and peeked out through the curtain upon a packed house. When the curtain went up Hayes stood in the curve of the baby grand piano, played by his accompanist. When the audience got their first look at him, they began hissing and booing. Someone shouted, “Don’t disgrace the Beethoven concert hall with plantation songs.” A spirit of hate was rapidly filling the auditorium, and violence threatened to break out. Hayes breathed a silent prayer, and then whispered to his accompanist, “Let’s start with Beethoven’s, ‘This is My Peace.’” When he began, a surprised murmur ran through the hall. By the time he finished, Hayes had the audience’s rapt attention. He went on to sing several classical numbers, and then ended with the spirituals he’d been planning to begin with. At the close, some members of the audience hoisted Roland on their shoulders and paraded him around the auditorium. He became the hero of the continent, and an inspiration in helping to settle the dispute between France and Germany.

That’s the kind of peace we can bring to the world when we know that we are children of God. That’s the kind of peace that begins to happen when we both realize and begin to live in the fact that it’s not just about making peace, it’s about being peace. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Blessed are the children of God, for they will be called “repairers of the breach.”

Amen

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