This is the meditation I am giving at the Community Prayer Breakfast sponsored by our local hospital, Danville Regional Medical Center.
A Story of Prayer and Community
We have gathered here this morning because we believe in two things — the power of prayer and our responsibility to our community. So we have come together to pray for our community, that we can find new ways to deal with old problems, that the promise of Jesus is true when he said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” — Matthew 5:9
In a day when violence seems unrelenting, and neighborliness is a quaint sentiment, let me tell you a story in which we might find some hope.
Not far from here, just across the North Carolina line, lies the little community of Cedar Grove, North Carolina. Cedar Grove is like many of the small rural communities around here. A changing economy and hard times have reduced the once-thriving crossroads to a couple of churches and a post office.
But Bill King and his wife, Emma, had high hopes for the little bait-and-tackle shop they opened just down the road from the Cedar Grove United Methodist Church. The Kings had to run the drug dealers out of the cinderblock building they bought. But gradually business picked up, and families even brought their kids to the little country store for ice cream on hot summer days.
One hot June day in 2004, an intruder walked into Bill’s store and shot him in the back of the head. Bill died from the gunshot wound, and any sense of security and innocence Cedar Grove might have had disappeared that day.
Outraged, the neighbors demanded that something be done. One suggested to Grace Hackney, pastor at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, that they offer a reward for the arrest and conviction of the killer. But Grace had a better idea. She suggested they gather in front of Bill and Emma’s store in a prayer vigil for their community.
In that small community, without any publicity except word of mouth, over 100 came to pray for the King family, and the Cedar Grove community. Valee Taylor, an African-American man who had talked with Grace about what the community could do after Bill’s murder, said of the prayer vigil —
“The sunlight was shining down on us, the air was crisp, there was a light breeze. Here were blacks and whites together praying for peace in the community.”
An African-American woman, Scenobia Taylor, a fifth generation descendant of sharecroppers, was moved by the vigil. As she would tell it later, God told her in a dream to give 5 acres of her property because her property was going to help heal the community’s scars. Scenobia eventually gave the land to the Cedar Grove United Methodist Church to hold in trust as a community garden.
Today, Anathoth Garden stands as a powerful witness to the power of prayer, and the promise of peace. There is no gate or fence around the five acres of Anathoth Garden, and Grace Hackney told me last year that in the five years the garden has been there, nothing has ever been taken.
The community garden invites its neighbors to join for about $10 a year. For that modest sum, garden members get the privilege of working in the garden at least two hours a week. Plus, at least twice a week, potluck lunch is held under the garden’s shelter, and everyone is invited to bring something and join their neighbors for a meal.
In addition, Anathoth Garden employs young, at-risk teens in its garden apprentice program, paying them above mininmum wage and putting aside a $1 per hour for each teen for their college fund. There’s even a children’s garden called The Sprouts program, where budding preschoolers can be part of the garden experience. Black and white, rich and poor in the Cedar Grove community meet in the garden to till the soil, remember Bill King, and look forward to a brighter day as neighbors together. Thousands of people have come from as far away as Australia to hear the story and see the garden that is transforming a community.
And it all started because people came together to pray and find a way to make peace, rather than continue the cycle of violence.
It’s interesting that Jesus, as someone has pointed out, didn’t say, “Blessed are the peacekeepers.” For as important as keeping peace might be, making peace is even more so. But what is this peacemaking that we’re called to do? Let me offer a practical definition —
Peacemaking is simply bringing together people, who have been alienated from each other, in a new relationship of trust and goodwill.
But as simple as that sounds, the work of peacemaking is anything but. Let me share with you four aspects of peacemaking that we need to be aware of.
Peacemaking is Hard Work
First of all, peacemaking is hard work.
In the Hebrew scripture, the prophet Isaiah says, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4)
I used to read this passage and not think much about how hard beating swords into plowshares might actually be. My son-in-law, Randy, is a metal sculptor, and he uses a forge and anvil, and all the tools of an old-fashioned metalworker to craft huge sculptures, and architectural pieces like gates and staircases.
Randy works hard, and he is tough as nails. But Amy, our daughter, told us one day that Randy can only work at the forge and anvil for about an hour at the time, because the repetitive pounding and heating the metal to shape it is such intensely hot and hard work. Peacemaking is like that.
Peacemaking is hard work. Forging completely new solutions out of intractable old problems taxes both the mind and the spirit. But it is work that must be done, even if from time to time we have to take a break, refresh ourselves, and then go after it again.
Peacemaking is hard work which requires both persistence and patience. When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he was talking about peacemaking. When Jesus sat and talked with the woman at the well, he was doing the work of peacemaking. When Jesus went home to eat with tax collectors and sinners, he was engaged in peacemaking. And for that, he was ridiculed, ostracized, demonized, and finally killed. Peacemaking is hard work.
Peacemaking is Risky Work
But peacemaking is also risky work. The German theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Jesus, of course, told his disciples to “take up your cross and follow me.” The cross Jesus referred to wasn’t just an inconvenience, or a nuisance. The cross is an instrument of death, and you and I must die to our desire for safety, security, reputation, and the status quo if we are to follow Jesus in the way of peacemaking.
Peacemaking is risky work. Rev. Paul Turner, pastor of the white First Baptist Church in Clinton, Tennessee, found out just how risky peacemaking was. On a crisp December morning in 1956, Paul Turner and two other clergymen formed a human shield around black high school students as they walked from the formerly separate-but-unequal black school, to the formerly all-white high school in Clinton. After the students were safely inside, the three ministers went their separate ways, but on the way to his car, Paul Turner was severely beaten by a white mob. One of his assailants shouted, “There, that’ll teach you a lesson.”
But the only lesson Paul Turner learned was the lesson of Jesus. For after Paul Turner became the pastor of the Brook Hollow Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, integration came to Nashville schools as well. And when the time came for little black children to enter the formerly all-white elementary school near Brook Hollow Baptist Church, Rev. Paul Turner took the hands of two small African-American children and walked them to their classroom, through the taunts and jeers of an angry crowd of white parents.
Peacemaking puts the status quo on notice that things cannot stay the same, that there are those who are working actively for change, and will not rest until reconciliation between black and white, rich and poor, takes place in a real and meaningful way. That kind of change doesn’t come easy and the church has not always taken the risk of peacemaking to heart. Mark Noll, professor at Notre Dame University, in his book, The Civil War As Theological Crisis, reminds us that slavery was defended from pulpits in both the North and the South prior to the Civil War.
To further shame those of us in the religious community, George Frederickson, in his book, A Short History of Racism, traces the beginnings of racism to the churches of the middle ages in their demonization of Jews. In both instances of the American Civil War, and the rise of anti-Semitism as the first vestige of racism, the church preserved and defended the status quo, rather than taking the risk to make peace between Jews and non-Jews, and between whites and blacks.
Peacemaking is Community Work
Third, not only is peacemaking hard work, and risky work, but peacemaking is also community work. Peacemaking belongs to the community. Willard Swartley, a Mennonite theologian, writes in his book, Covenant of Peace, “…the community of the faithful confronts the world by its alternative ethic and lifestyle. In the Gospel [of John] and the epistles, love for one another is the identifying mark of the true Jesus community.” — Covenant of Peace, pg. 277
When our church opened its doors in December, 2005, to start a Boys and Girls Club in Chatham, our goal was to have 100 kids signed up by December 15. But after the first week, we had only one member: the fourth-grade daughter of our youth pastor. I was puzzled because our local paper, The Star Tribune had run a wonderful article about the new Boys and Girls Club, and flyers had been sent out to the schools.
In trying to figure our why no kids were coming, I called a friend of mine, who pastored an African-American congregation in town. I asked her, “Why aren’t African-American children joining the Boys and Girls Club that’s meeting at our church?”
Her response to me was, “In Chatham, there are ‘us’ things and ‘them’ things.” I knew instantly what she meant, and I replied. “Would you help me get the word out that this is ‘our’ thing, and that all boys and girls are welcome?”
She did, and by the time the Boys and Girls Club moved from our church to the new community center in Chatham in 2008, we had over 200 kids enrolled, and 60-80 children attending each afternoon.
Bringing people together — making peace — requires that community take the lead. A community of faith, like a church, synagogue or mosque; or a community of healing like a hospital and its staff, must take responsibility for imagining a tomorrow that will be different from our past. And by taking responsibility for peacemaking, the community itself becomes the instrument of peace.
Peacemaking is God’s Work
Finally, peacemaking is God’s work. I was stunned several weeks ago, as I’m sure you were, to hear the chairman of Goldman-Sachs say that Goldman-Sachs was doing God’s work. I don’t think so.
Peacemaking is God’s work. The apostle Paul said that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” When asked what the two greatest commandments were, Jesus said, “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Peacemaking is God’s work, and we get to get in on it now.
And it is in peacemaking that we are most like God. Remember the promise of Jesus we read earlier? “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” Children resemble their parents, and it is in our peacemaking, our reconciling work, that we are most like God.
One of last Sunday’s lectionary readings came from the book of Revelation, chapter 7. Here’s what verse 9 said of John’s vision of heaven —
9After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” — Revelation 7:9
Now I realize that Revelation is a complex and controversial book and that there are about as many different interpretations of Revelation as there are churches, but my point last Sunday was this:
If heaven is populated with “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language…”
and if we’re going to be there for eternity,
shouldn’t we get to know each other here on earth?
That’s peacemaking, and that’s why we’re here today, to get to know one another and bring our community together.